Blog: The Educated Reporter

Sandy Hook Tragedy: Trying to Explain the Unimaginable

“This is a teachable moment: It’s one of the unfortunate realities of life,” Richard Shadick, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pace University in New York said of the Friday morning shooting that left 27 dead —including 20 children—at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.“Sometimes there are tragic circumstances that happen in the safest and most unexpected places.”

Across the country, education reporters are assembling reaction stories – localized articles on the safety practices of their local campuses, comments from the district’s police chief, and reaction from school staff and parents about their own fears and concerns. There will be questions about what, if anything, could have been done to prevent this senseless, unfathomable tragedy. Some of the toughest conversations – many of which will be taking place in schools across the country — are still to come.

For adults – parents, teachers, and school administrators – it’s important to consider a child’s developmental age when dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event, Shadick said.

“How much they can handle is the first thing,” Shadick told me. “There’s less of a need to provide information to a kindergartener than to someone in seventh grade where access to the media is much greater.”

But it’s also important that there be two-way communication – “A child should be allowed to talk about their concerns, and their questions should be answered,” Shadick said.

With younger children, the central message should be that they are safe, that what happened is extremely unusual, and that trustworthy adults are there to protect them, according to Shadick. The focus should be on instilling a sense of security and normalcy.

At the same time, adults – including teachers, coaches, and school administrators – need to be monitoring how children are processing the information. Kids who have experienced violence at home, or have “an excessive diet of media violence” should be monitored more closely to see if they are expressing anger or anxiety,” Shadick said.

For Aisha Sultan, who writes about parenting and family life for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the most important thing to do right now is reassure her children – a 7-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter – that they are safe at school.

“It’s your worst nightmare – you drop your kids off but you’re not going to pick them up at the end of the day,” Sultan said.  “There’s an element of trust and faith that this is where they go to learn from people who are going to protect them. That anything else will happen is something you don’t even allow yourself to imagine.”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.