School psychologists help Valley students cope with shooting in Connecticut

December 18, 2012 12:29:34 AM PST
Valley educators are asking themselves the same question this week: how do we talk to our students following the mass shooting in Connecticut?

The answers vary, but the premise is the same. Many believe it all depends on the child's grade level.

Teachers and administrators at St. Anthony's School in Northwest Fresno are keeping the conversation to a minimum, because they say children understand death in different ways at different ages.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry , three and four year olds see death as temporary and not personally relevant; young grade school children understand death is permanent, but don't believe they will die; and by the time they reach the age of nine, children begin to understand they too will die someday. Teens, however, are more capable of understanding abstract reasoning and may want to engage in conversation.

Second grade teacher Carmie Gennock took this research to heart. Instead of initiating conversation with her seven and eight year old students, she's letting them come to her with questions and when they do she's providing them short and factual explanations. The reason? She wants to create a stable and predictable environment in the classroom because she says routines are comforting to children.

"I think just letting them know we're here for them and of course that our number one priority is that our classrooms are a safe environment, our schools are a safe environment... and they have people around them that can help them with anything," she said. "Just letting the kids know to not be afraid to come to us if they have a question, concern or worry."

Other school districts are doing much of the same. Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said 15 school psychologists are on hand to address student and staff concerns on nearly 20 school sites. He said teachers are also answering questions as they come up, but are not beginning to the conversation with their students.

"Its' far less about talking about the tragedy in Connecticut and more about creating that environment, that welcoming environment, the safe open armed environment... so students feel ready to continue with the business of the day," he said.

To help create that environment, district psychologist Amber Gallagher said teachers at some sites met before school started Monday morning to welcome the kids back on campus as they were dropped off.

She said it was important to let kids know their families are the best resource for information and comfort, but teachers and counselors are there to assist them.

"We're not certain what every child is coming from when they come to school as far as what they've been exposed to in the media or what they're family conversations have been like so we don't want to add to that at all, but really to kind of meet them where they are and answer their questions directly," said Gallagher.

If you'd like to learn more about how to talk to your child at home, many school districts have placed advice on their websites. Parents are also encouraged to talk with their student's school psychologist.


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