Supporting Students Through Difficult Events

It has been a hard week in California. And it’s only Wednesday.

Over the span of eight days, we have had three mass shootings, which have caused the death of twenty-four innocent victims. My heart goes out to all the families and the Asian American community, who has been particularly impacted by these tragedies, during a time that should have been of celebration for the Lunar New Year.

These acts of violence may cause many Asian Americans to deal with vicarious trauma, or more direct trauma, from experiencing and witnessing violence, acts of hate and discrimination, and feeling unsafe in the workplace or at home.

If you need resources to support yourself or your students, you can reach out to:

Asian Mental Health Collective 

Asian Mental Health Project

Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Stop AAPI Hate

When children live through stressful events—witnessing violence, losing their homes or the death of a loved one—they may become hypervigilant about these incidents happening again in the future.

Even students who have only seen pictures or heard stories about these shootings may become worried about their safety or what they would do if something happened. If students bring up these topics in your classroom, support them by discussing their feelings and answering questions. These conversations may reduce some of their fear and anxiety, and open the door to build trust with your students.

In some cases, students may be experiencing stressful events and educators don’t know about it. As we have discussed in the past, we see the behaviors, but we don’t always know the reasons underneath them. Students might act out, show strong emotions or have big reactions to small incidents. If that’s the case in your classroom, approach them with curiosity.

Behavior is communication, so investigate:

What are they trying to communicate with this behavior?

What do they need that they are not getting?

As an educator, you cannot control what students experience outside of the classroom.

However, you can help them develop the tools they need to navigate their emotions and cope with the setbacks they will surely encounter throughout their lives.

In Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I present a framework to help educators develop their emotional intelligence, resilience and well-being and transform their teaching practice through SEL.

The HEART in Mind® model represents a practical application of essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills for students and adults to be socially, emotionally, and culturally competent in their lives. These important skills are represented by the acronym HEART and are organized to show you a developmentally appropriate progression of skill development.

Download a handout of the model here.

As you are using these HEART skills to support your students, remember these important lessons:

  • When we ignore students’ emotions or expect them to go away, we are denying students’ experiences and ignoring their value. This is important, because we cannot effectively manage something we don’t understand. In order for students to be able to navigate their feelings, first they need to interpret the meaning of their emotions.
  • If students are experiencing strong emotions and making poor choices, start by connecting with their feelings, instead of focusing on their behavior.  First, acknowledge and validate their emotions. For example, you can say ”Your face is tense, you seem upset. What happened? I may also feel upset if that happened to me.”
  • It is never too late to learn tools to process our emotions, especially for students whose feelings are getting in the way of learning. When students feel overwhelmed, anxious or out of control due to their emotions, they cannot and will not learn. No matter how well designed your lesson is.
  • Our job as educators is, as Dan Siegel says, to “co-regulate”. This means helping students to regain emotional balance and increase their capacity to navigate their feelings, so they can see things more clearly and respond to daily situations instead of reacting.
  • We, educators, also need to manage our reactions to students’ emotions and behaviors in constructive ways. Check out Growing Your HEART Skills if you need a tool to practice your SEL skills.

If you are supporting your students this week to process these difficult events or others happening in your community, remember to acknowledge and validate your students’ emotions, no matter what they are. There is value in understanding what we are feeling, and using these emotions as vehicles for healing, connection and shared understanding. 

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