Q: We live far from Connecticut, yet the horrible tragedy there freaked out my 6-year-old daughter. The TV reports upset her so much I kept her home from school. Her principal called and said it would be better if she were in school. How does that make sense?
A: Your daughter's principal is right. Psychologists say one of the things kids need most after a tragedy is a return to a comforting and familiar routine. This is why UNICEF rushes "School in a Box" kits to places where children are dislocated by natural disasters. The rhythm of school "helps foster a sense of normalcy in times of crisis," says Christine Hoier, education technical assistant for UNICEF.
Schools are one of the safest places for children and youth during the school day and an important place for them to receive support and return to normal routines, says Kathy Cowen of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
With children on holiday break, think about ways to establish reassuring routines at home, too, while being alert to kids' concerns and questions. "Be a good listener and observer," says Cowen.
NASP offers these guidelines:
-- Make time to talk. Let your child's questions guide you as to how much information to provide. Give a clear, developmentally appropriate explanation.
-- Provide ways for children to express their emotions. Good activities include writing letters, making collages, playing music, dancing and journaling. Younger children may need concrete activities such as imaginative play or drawing pictures to help them express feelings when they can't find ways to talk about them.
-- Cut down on TV. Kids don't really need to know every detail, nor see every "breaking news" brief. Take care in your conversations in front of children.
-- Model resilience and compassion. How you react to this tragedy can shape the way your children react and influence their perceptions of safety.
-- Don't dwell on the worst possibilities. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important that your daughter understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and the probability that it will affect her school. Find more suggestions as nasponline.org.
"Six-year-olds are curious and ask pointed questions about death," says Delores Seamster, Ph.D., a retired Dallas principal who now volunteers in an elementary school. "Last week, along with the tragic news from Connecticut, we dealt with the sudden death of one of our own precious students. In helping students cope, we learned that their biggest concern was that their classmate had not disappeared, that he was somewhere. Many parents drew on their faith to reassure their children that he was still with us -- just in a better place. You could see the lines of worry vanish from their faces."
It's not the school's job to use the tools of faith, says Seamster, but parents can. "Don't dwell on the tragedy over the holidays. Make it a time to share love and assurance. Your daughter will return to school more resilient in the new year."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)