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The Mind of the News

After Newtown shooting, how do teachers tell kids they are loved and safe?

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    A child's message rests with a memorial for shooting victims in Newtown, Conn.AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

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    Dec. 14, 2102: Relatives embrace each other outside Sandy Hook Elementary School following a shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.REUTERS

In the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, teachers will be faced with the daunting task of reassuring children that they are loved and safe.  Many children will have individual needs.  

For instance, children who have lost loved ones in the past may be revisiting that painful grief.  Children who have faced domestic violence may feel even more vulnerable now than ever before.  But there are some general ways that teachers can comfort their students psychologically.

First, teachers should certainly mention the events that occurred at Sandy Hook, because it is probably that most students will have heard the terrible news or will eventually hear of it.  

Keeping the news very general and adding that the assailant cannot hurt anyone else is the key.  “A man with a gun shot lots of bullets, and some children died, but the man died, too, so he can’t hurt anyone else,” is the way to put it for the youngest kids being spoken to.  

Second, it could be very helpful to tell children that what happened is very rare.  In fact teachers can say with accuracy, “This has never happened to little kids at school anywhere in America ever before, and it may never, ever, again.”  Even young kids want something to compare the odds to.  

It would even be fair to say, “You’re more likely to get hit by lightning than have someone come to this school trying to hurt you with a gun.”  It’s okay to be funny, in the midst of all this, too.  Teachers can add, “You’re more likely to score all the goals for your team this season—every single one.”

Teachers can also say and mean (because we saw it in Connecticut) that if anyone dangerous came to school, they would do anything to keep them safe and that “all sorts of plans” are already being made to make sure everyone would be okay, just in case—even though it isn’t going to happen, anyway.

It would be very helpful for kids to be helped to express their sympathy for those in Connecticut, by sending cards and letters and art projects.  That helps children feel powerful and connected

An element of loving appreciation for one another at every school in America would be a kind of antidote to the terror that unfolded on Friday.  Maybe it’s a special meal in the cafeteria or older students bringing Christmas or holiday gifts of appreciation for much younger ones.  It’s okay to let kids express how much they value one another when the potential loss of friends and classmates feels so real.

Finally, teachers should not be expected to go this one alone.  They should be encouraged to involve school counselors in referring children with particular anxieties to therapists for follow-up.  And teachers should keep in mind that they, too, are not made of iron and might need a therapist’s time.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.