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Teachers often struggle to address mass traumatic events in class

Teachers often struggle to address mass traumatic events in class
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

After the Paris attacks of 2015—a series of attacks in which gunmen opened fire on nightspots and a concert hall in Paris—a U.S.-based high school teacher of French described her failure to discuss the attacks in class as a “lost opportunity.”

“I was working through my own feelings and did not know how to approach it,” she told us in a survey after the attacks. “I only talked about it when the students brought it up and I kept conversations short.

“I think I should have been more open, honest, and offered more opportunities for students to process and take some action, even if it was a moment of silence, to honor the victims and help the families and survivors,” the continued. “I let my fear of not knowing what to do guide me and I regret it.”

Such feelings are by no means uncommon among schoolteachers after a mass traumatic event has occurred, as we have learned as researchers who specialize in student mental health and well-being.

This teacher was just one of almost 100 U.S.-based teachers of French whom we surveyed after the 2015 Paris attacks. We also surveyed about 150 Massachusetts teachers following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that teachers make time to talk to students about high-profile acts of violence, including attacks against schools, such as the May 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. However, the teachers whom we surveyed regularly told us that initiating these conversations is difficult.

In response to our surveys, the teachers wrote about the challenges of entering their classroom the morning after a crisis. Here is what they told us:

1. There is no typical way that students will respond

Psychologists are clear that, after a mass trauma, a wide range of feelings and responses is normal.

For teachers, this means that in a classroom of 25 students, there might be 25 different reactions. Students may also differ in their knowledge and understanding of what happened in the event. Whereas parents can focus on just their own children, teachers need to navigate complex conversations with many students at once, realizing that some students may be deeply affected, while others have little reaction.

For example, after the Boston Marathon attack in April 2013, a teacher wrote about the challenges of anticipating how her students would respond: “Because the students I serve have trauma histories and emotional disabilities, it is very difficult to determine the impact of the events in April on students, as so many other factors play a role.”

2. There is no script to address trauma

Conversations about crises are unpredictable. Teachers don’t know what topics and questions students will raise and are often left to find their own materials. One teacher wrote about preparing to return to school following the Boston Marathon attack: “I spent a lot of time and energy working on a plan for my class on my own, but I know that other teachers who did not have the luxury to do so, or who were less experienced teachers, were much more worried about going into school than I was.”

Other teachers commented on their uncertainty entering the classroom. A teacher of middle and high school French wrote after the Paris attacks: “ had many students ask me about the attacks and I spoke with them privately about the tragedy but said that I didn’t feel comfortable discussing the events as an entire class. If I had more resources or time or training to address these events with teens I would love to be able to without the fear of offending someone or having a student say something insensitive.”

3. Students are not the only audience

While students are the focus of teachers’ attention, families may have strong opinions about if or how schools talk about mass trauma. Even when school staff members know how to navigate conversations with students based on and developmental considerations, families may have their own opinions about what is appropriate to discuss in school.

An elementary school French teacher wrote about her concern that she would provide more information than parents would like: “I told them that if they had questions, they should talk to their parents, because I wanted to respect the parents’ wishes as far as how much the kids knew.”

An science teacher wrote a similar response after the Boston Marathon attack: “I was also always fearful that one who knew all about the attacks would start talking about it with students who had no idea what had happened and I would be stuck trying to mediate the situation, wary of what parents would say if students come home talking about the event after parents had decided not to expose their child to it.”

4. Events are linked to broader social, political and cultural contexts

As teachers prepared to discuss a traumatic event, they said they also needed to be ready to discuss the context of the event. For example, a middle and high school teacher of French wrote that she “experienced strong conservative political reactions from students,” which she said she wasn’t expecting. “I expected to help them grieve, but I felt unprepared to navigate a debate on gun control in one class and bombing Syria in another. … I tried to offer counterpoints while simultaneously being unaware of how far I can push before getting into hot water.”

5. Teachers are affected, too

Often teachers live and teach in communities directly affected by traumatic events. Or, as with the Uvalde, Texas massacre, teachers may themselves feel scared or affected by events. For example, an eighth and ninth grade French and Spanish teacher wrote after the Paris attacks that she, “as an adult, was much more traumatized than the kids.” “To me it was another 9/11 moment,” she said. “I was the one feeling lost, shocked and upset.” A first grade teacher similarly wrote after the Boston Marathon attack: “Most of the students wanted school to resume as normal—they wanted consistency and something familiar. It was the adults that needed the most help comprehending, processing and dealing with the events.”

When we asked teachers how their schools can better support them, two messages came across clearly. First, leadership is essential. Several teachers noted the importance of school leaders meeting with staff to discuss their feelings and prepare to respond before resuming school. They also discussed the importance of school leaders sending out communications to educators and families, explaining how the school will respond.

Second, teachers want to know what to say. An April 2022 study found that only five states required future teachers to receive training in how to respond to trauma. Teachers expressed that they want training and guidance in how to discuss traumatic events with students, including how to open the conversation, how to respond to difficult questions, and how to support throughout the discussion. For example, a fifth grade teacher wrote after the Boston Marathon attack: “Training! We have no training on this. We get emails from our superiors that tell us to address the events, with not much training on how to do it. I feel like I’m good at this type of thing—but not all teachers in my are. … The result is that some kids get their needs met by their teacher and some don’t.”

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Niagara schools taking nuanced approach to teaching current events

Niagara schools taking nuanced approach to teaching current events

The war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black racism, the impact of residential schools — there has been no shortage of concerns or topics of reflection in classrooms the past few years.

In response, Niagara school boards said they have taken a nuanced and thorough approach in bringing discussions about current events into the classroom.

That means relying on the relationships between faculty and students, and giving teachers tools and space to determine the best option to create a safe learning environment, said Michael St. John, superintendent of special education and mental health and well-being for District School Board of Niagara.

“The teachers in our system really pride themselves on, and take care in, knowing each of their students … knowing their learning, knowing their background, knowing their culture, knowing a great deal about their family,” said St. John.

“We don’t go in to teach about Ukraine, we respond to the needs of the students and the questions they may have, some of their natural curiosity and some of their musings and thinking.”

DSBN said its system works to create a foundation and a balance when it comes to world events such as Ukraine or Black Lives Matter, using resources from mental health and well-being teams in combination with resources that come from its curriculum department.

But it’s about more than academics, with teachers learning to how to identify struggling students, and how to appropriately respond.

It may involve a phone call home, or bringing in a counsellor, either for an individual student or for the entire classroom, to work on resiliency and social emotional learning, “which is a big part of our curriculum for kids and their mental health and well-being,” said St. John.

“It really is going to be a mixture and a balance and it’s pretty fluid with regards to what can, and is, being presented to acknowledge and honour all of the kids in the class.”

Jennifer Pellegrini, communications officer for Niagara Catholic District School Board, said students are encouraged to come forward about Ukraine or other global events, with conversations from a faith-based perspective, “focusing on the need for humanitarian aid, justice, compassion and empathy.”

“Questions and conversations may focus on the politics behind the war, and the history of the region. They may also focus on the importance of critical thinking about the information students are consuming online,” she said.

Conseil scolaire Viamonde, the public French school board, said in an email when it comes to the response to current world events, it relies solely on curriculum provided by the Ministry of Education.

DSBN student trustee Salony Sharma said the past few years have brought about “so much discussion and uncertainty” but has created a unique environment to learn and grow, especially as a high school student.

“It’s not like you’re reflecting on history, you’re reflecting on current events and news happening in the context of our own lives,” she said. “You’re starting to form your own perspectives and viewpoints on these things and be experiencing them in real time.”

Sharma, who is in her final year at Westlane Secondary in Niagara Falls, said those discussions have allowed students to use the classroom as “a hub of different perspectives.”

She credited teachers for that freedom, and for encouraging student-led conversations.

“That lets us have a very open conversation without the pressure of the teacher’s opinion or how that might be perceived as a student in their class,” she said.

“To have those conversations helped solidify my own voice … and make me think outside my own privilege or my own bubble.”

Jennifer McArthur, Niagara president of Elementary Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said teachers use their professional judgment and knowledge of their students to determine how and when to respond to current events.

Some engage students through visual arts by creating a lesson of painting sunflowers, while another may include the Ukraine war as a choice for a topic on written reflection.

But it goes beyond the age or grade of the student and their development, with teachers considering students’ social-emotional needs to make sure they “feel safe.” They also take into consideration the amount of understanding or exposure to current events students may have.

“A teacher with students who are refugees would consider previous and potential trauma that may affect how students react to the topic of Ukraine,” she said.

“If a child has friends or relatives directly affected, their understanding will be vastly different from a student living in a house where it is not being discussed.”

Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation District 22 president Shannon Smith said teachers throughout the province engage students in ongoing conversations about current events as an opportunity to teach critical thinking.

“They engage students in ways that are pertinent to their subject area. Whether it’s learning traditional folk music from different countries or incorporating more inclusive novels in their English class, teachers present students with opportunities to expand their understanding of history and social justice,” said Smith.

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Ohio State offers resources and events amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Ohio State offers resources and events amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Tensions between Russia and other nations have been growing for decades, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Credit: Maxim Guchek/BelTA/TASS/ABACAPRESS.COM via TNS

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, Ohio State has a number of resources to help those impacted, and will host events with information about the war.

Christopher Gelpi, director and chair of peace studies and conflict resolution at the Mershon Center, said learning about the war is an important part of being a good citizen, because everyone has a responsibility to understand how governments, both in the U.S. and overseas, react in times of struggle.

“I see our role in a crisis like this is to bring people together and share the knowledge that our faculty fellows have in a way that is accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” Gelpi said.

An estimated 42,908 people of Ukrainian descent live in Ohio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Ohio State’s “Education for Citizenship” motto emphasizes the university’s commitment to informing citizens, according to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website. The Office of International Affairs has a list of resources to inform students about the university’s events covering the crisis in Ukraine.

University spokesperson Chris Booker said in an email the Office of International Affairs offers support resources, including counseling and personal well-being services, immigration assistance for international students and information about cyber security.

“Ohio State developed this list of academic and support resources to assist those impacted by the conflict in Ukraine and foster discussion and education across campus,” Booker said.

The Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies has compiled various academic resources, including books, articles, events and films, that help to better understand the crisis in Ukraine, according to the center’s website. The office will also hold a virtual roundtable Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon, featuring Polish experts sharing their perspective on the war.

WOSU Public Media and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs will hold an event Thursday at noon called “Dialogue Special Edition: The Russia/Ukraine Crisis,” featuring a variety of speakers and discussions on the possible routes to peace in Europe.

The Mershon Center will host a virtual event March 24 from 3:30-5 p.m., featuring a discussion from Timothy Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in Russian and international politics, according to the Mershon Center website. Another virtual event hosting 11 speakers who will speak on U.S. and NATO relations with Russia will be held April 8 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.