Written collaboratively by Katie Allen, LPC, Alicia Hannigan, LMHC, Brendan Duffy, and Kristen Eccleston, Ed. D, NBCT.
When a tragic event happens nationally or in your community, you and your community members may be left unsure how to manage emotions such as fear, grief, sadness, or anxiety.
Many of us struggle to identify what we are feeling, and different people may have different degrees of comfort reaching out to others for support. Additionally, many of you may be struggling to know what to do or say. We’ve assembled some tips for supporting you and your community below.
Get a sense of how your community is doing
Students, teachers, and staff can independently check in to Rhithm as often as needed. Additionally, we recommend a district-wide or school-wide check-in to allow a touchpoint with your community at this time.
You can schedule a session that is open for a few hours or all day in order to give everyone ample time to get in Rhithm.
If you’re a district administrator, you can open the session for your whole district
If you’re a campus administrator, you can open the session for your whole school
If you’re a teacher, you can open the session for all students that you teach
More information on scheduling sessions is here.
Help support well-being with video content
After completing a Rhithm check-in, everyone will receive a video recommendation based on their responses. We also recommend this collection of videos that can specifically help students regulate or understand their feelings. Videos can also be accessed at any time by clicking “Toolkit” on the left-hand menu while logged into Rhithm and searching for them by title in the search bar.
For regulation: Favorite Things, Beach Getaway, Rainbow Breath
For understanding: What Are Feelings, It's Ok to Feel, Connecting When Stressed
For regulation: Balloon Release, Send Compassion, Neck Stretch Series
For understanding: It's Ok to Feel, Tough Times, Connecting When Stressed
For regulation: Breath & Reset, Balloon Release, Accepting Help
For understanding: Tough Times, It’s Ok to Feel
Identify community members who are struggling
Being aware of students and staff having difficulty adjusting after exposure to tragedy is essential, and this adjustment can vary from person to person, even presenting in unexpected ways. Signs and symptoms to be mindful of include:
being easily startled
irritability and/or aggressive outbursts
feelings of shame or guilt
feelings of numbness and avoidance behaviors
Students may reach out to let you know how they are feeling. You can also reference the results from a student’s Rhithm check-in to identify students who may be struggling without letting an adult know.
A low Tempo Score (below 70) typically indicates dysregulation. The entity list on your dashboard will automatically show those with the lowest tempo scores at the top. This is a quick way to identify who may need additional support.
From your dashboard, you can filter for check-in responses that contain certain emojis. Click “List view” (or “Diverse list view” for the simplified 2-question assessment), then click “Filter”.
Students’ emotions may show up in a variety of different ways, and the following dysregulated responses could indicate students who could use additional support: Distracted, Racing, Exhausted, Tired, Sad, Down, Anxious, Angry, Meh, Injured, Bad
More information on viewing data is here.
It may be helpful to set up some additional risk alerts to automatically be notified when a student’s response meets specific criteria. You can set up an emoji alert to look for certain responses (such as “Anxious”) or a note alert that scans for any specific words or phrases you’d like to watch for.
More information on creating risk alerts is available here. Please also feel free to reach out to Rhithm Support or Customer Success for assistance in setting up alerts.
Reach out to students
Without clear communications, fear can quickly spiral out of control. Speaking with your students and community, even if it's to say that more information is on the way, is a great first start in letting them know they are not alone.
Know that there is no perfect thing to say or “right” way to respond to a tragedy. It is important to allow space for processing and talking about the event, instead of ignoring it or pretending it did not happen. If you are worried about a student, you can always refer them to your school counselor. And, if you are wanting to support your students directly, here are some examples of what a check-in might sound like.
Note: Prior to engaging students in difficult discussions, it is important that you have attended to your own mental well-being needs first. See below for tips on how to do this.
Tips for communicating with students
Ask open-ended questions
“What feelings are you having about this?”
“What types of things are you thinking about this event?”
“What questions do you have?”
“What are some things that might make you feel more safe?”
Note: If you are asked a question you are unsure of the answer or not prepared to answer, it is always OK to say, "That is a good question. I don't know the answer", or "I want to make sure we talk about that, let's touch base after class."
Model & normalize feelings
Children and adolescents look to adults to understand how to emotionally regulate after a tragedy.
It is healthy to allow your students to see you express emotion, including showing sadness and crying.
Modeling emotions, and emotion regulation skills can be a powerful way to show empower students to work through their own feelings.
Normalizing feelings may sound like:
“It’s ok to feel sad. I feel sad too.”
“I can understand feeling worried. Something really scary has happened. I'm here with you now to support you in any way that I can.”
“You might be feeling mad that this has happened. That makes a lot of sense. This scary thing isn’t fair or right. It’s ok to feel mad.”
Use developmentally-appropriate, accurate language
If death has occurred, it is appropriate to be direct and use words such as “died” or “kill” instead of phrases like “not here anymore”, “gone to a better place”, or “At peace now”.
This may sound like:
“A very sad thing has happened at a school. It is very sad because many people have died.”
“Someone who is unwell has made an extremely bad choice and killed a lot of people. It is very sad. It’s normal to want to talk about it, so you may hear other kids and adults talking about it. If you have any questions I want you to know you can ask me.”
While honesty is important, sharing excessive details about the event and associated losses is not always helpful
Certain phrases, while they may be helpful to you, are not always helpful to others. Examples include:
Everything happens for a reason
We are never given what we can’t handle
Try to look for the good in this situation. Be positive.
Time heals all wounds.
Using books and storytelling can be a powerful way to help young students process their feelings and understand feelings of grief and loss. The following are just a few recommended titles.
For primary students
“A Terrible Thing Happened” by Margaret M. Holmes
This book is about a raccoon, Sherman, who witnessed something “terrible” (the book doesn’t specify what the “terrible” event was) and talks about the physical and emotional ways Sherman was affected.
“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
This book can help affirm the connection between a parent and child and explains how we are connected to those we love, even those who have died. (Note- this book does mention heaven). This book has an accompanying workbook of grief and coping skill-related activities to offer further support.
“The Memory Box: A Book About Grief” by Joanna Rowland
This book is about a child who loses a loved one, worries they will forget them, and creates a memory box of the loved one to help cope with their feelings of grief.
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
This book is about a young raccoon who becomes anxious and afraid when the Mother raccoon is not there. The Mother kisses the young raccoon's hand as a reminder of her love and support. This book can help affirm the parent/child connection and feelings of safety.
“The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld
This book is about a young child experiencing feelings of sadness, frustration, and pain, and the power of listening as a form of support. This book can encourage children to talk about their feelings and sends the message that it’s okay to embrace their emotions.
“Always Remember” by Cece Meng
This book is about a sea turtle who dies and the sea animals remember the ways in which the turtle touched and impacted their lives. This can be a resource in talking about how we can honor the memories of those who have died.
Support yourself as a teacher or administrator
Below are some recommended strategies you can use to care for yourself after a tragedy. It is important that you attend to your own well-being needs before trying to engage in the support of others.
Take space to check-in and sit with your own thoughts and feelings about the event. You can do this by:
Meditating or Breathing Exercises
Talk with a trusted colleague, friend, or family member
Utilize any available PTO or advocate for time off as needed
Be gentle with yourself
Remind yourself you are human and affected by these events as well
Remind yourself that you are not alone in having to help your students process these events
Notice how watching the news is impacting you and know that it is OK to take a break from media and screens
For regulation in-the-moment
Utilize deep breathing
Tense and release your muscles in sync with your breath
Engage in grounding skills
Splash cold water on your face
Take a drink of water
Anchor your feet firmly on the floor and notice the sensations of your feet connected to the solid ground
Name one thing you can hear, feel, see, touch, and smell
Additional tips and resources
On Media Exposure
Limiting media exposure is important - for you and your students. Our brains are not able to process the difference between what we see on TV and what happens in real life, and watching news coverage of tragic events can activate a stress response.
Younger students may have difficulty understanding that the images they see on TV are not live.
Even if you take efforts to limit media exposure in your community, assume students are aware of the events to some extent.
Awareness of Diverse Needs
When supporting students and staff through trauma, it is important to know how cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, and learning differences impact how individuals process their feelings and emotions. When we account for individuals' needs in times of stress, students and staff will be better prepared to cope with the stressor of ongoing changes.
Providing Additional Resources
When dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, it is always a best practice to bring in additional support to aid the school community. Access to grief counselors and other outside providers can be critical in ensuring that the school community has access to the level of support they require to help navigate the stress and emotions resulting from the trauma of the event.
Recovery & Rebuilding
Tragic events impact academic and social achievement. Creating a recovery plan that includes interventions to address student and staff mental health is critical in ensuring mental health needs do not go unaddressed. Providing counseling and services directed towards student and staff mental health needs should become part of the daily school culture during the recovery process.