In a meeting with teachers from a variety of schools and grade levels in October, it came up that across the board, it was taking longer for their students to settle into the rhythm of the classroom. Teachers often plan for the first six weeks of school to be focused on developing community and adjusting to new expectations and routines. However, in some years, for a variety of reasons, it just takes longer. It could be related to the personalities of the group. It could be related to changes in your school or program. It could be related to things occurring in the home lives of your students. As much as we as teachers feel we are accountable for all that occurs in our classrooms, the truth is that there are many factors impacting your students’ daily experiences that are beyond our control. In the meeting that occurred earlier in the fall, as teachers shared about the challenges they are facing, what became clear was that many of their students were worried. Worried about things they hear in the news or hear about in conversations at home. Worried that family in Puerto Rico continued to be in peril two weeks after Hurricane Maria. Confused about how close in proximity the hurricanes were to Connecticut. Worried about loved ones being deported. More recently, students are bound to have heard of more mass shootings. Unhinged by their adults’ uncertainty about the future. We know, and research shows, that when children’s basic needs, including the need for stability, are not met, their brains are less available for learning. The affective filter obstructs the learning process. The question, then, is what can we as teachers do to best support our students in what may be a challenging time for them, while also ensuring that the classroom environment is rich for learning?

We turned to Kossouth Bradford, school social worker at The Foote School, and Nancy Close, child development consultant for Seedlings, Assistant Professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Associate Director of the Yale Program in Early Childhood Education, for their thoughts on this topic.

Nancy Close

On general classroom anxieties:

On potential behaviors and emotions around national trauma:

On the teacher’s role:

On resources:

Kossouth Bradford’s Thoughts

1) Ask the students open-ended questions to get an idea of what is impacting/affecting them: (a) What have they heard about the Hurricane, DACA (gives an idea of how valid/true their information is and what they concerned about)? It’s also important to find out where they get their information from: news, friends, parents etc. (b) Inquire what thoughts and feelings they are having as a result of this: How is it impacting family members, people they know? (c) What do they want to know? Share what you can, be honest when you don’t know the answer but let them know you will do your best to obtain the information. There are a lot of relief organizations right now assisting Puerto Rico.

2) Let children lead you in regards to how much information to share. Be careful about over explaining, or giving more information they can process: “There are many things happening that are pretty scary, is there anything you have been told or heard that you have questions about or want to talk about?” If a friend has been impacted, how can we support their friend?

3) Emphasize the importance of talking about their feelings, there is an expression “name it to tame it”. Help them express and communicate their feelings through art, talk or writing. If they keep them in, they can come out in unhealthy ways – constant worrying, becoming angry quickly, isolating themselves etc. The more granular, specific they can be when explaining their feelings, the better.

4) A positive way to deal with feelings of helplessness and fear is through action. Is there a project or fundraiser etc. they could do to address the issue?

5) Review all the things that the adults in their life are doing to keep them or loved ones safe: keeping them with safe adults (teachers, friends family), checking in with family PR, following the laws, meeting with public officials etc.

6) Normalize the fears and thoughts are they are having. There are no wrong feelings, questions or thoughts.

7) Depending on the age, you could also explain the 5 stages of grief (grieving that the world isn’t as safe or fair as they thought it was): Denial, Sadness, Bartering, Anger, Acceptance. They are not linear, but more circular. You can return to an emotion you thought you had already processed.

8) Exercise, being with friends/family, getting out in nature, mindfulness activities, engaging in activities they enjoy, listening to music, cooking, crafts, sports etc. are all things that help with stress.

Further Information

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

NPR story: “For Puerto Rico’s Children, Finding A ‘Safe Place’ In The Few Schools That Are Open” 

New America article: “What Teachers Can Do In the Face of National Trauma”