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Cambridge Strong

Tips for students returning after bombs and lockdowns

A wise school administrator once offered this sage advice: "Walk like you have the gold in your pocket, and soon you will."

I am thinking about this as I contemplate students returning to school tomorrow after a harrowing week of bombs and lockdowns. Students in Massachusetts were on spring break last week, so when they resume their routine tomorrow, we need to assess the impact of the tragedy and create a plan that restores a sense of security.

Over the years, I have learned that delicate decisions before the students enter the classroom can make a huge difference. Educators who walk like they have gold in their pocket can create an atmosphere that exudes the relief after a storm, the soothing comfort of a shelter, and the reassurance of a tight community. Educators without a clear plan can inadvertently communicate the sense of a rabbit caught in headlights.

While this kind of crisis is dramatically different from a snow day, some of the same principles apply. There is a chain of communication around snow days and a predictable protocol, and this kind of approach can be very useful while debriefing from a crisis with multiple moving parts. If a community is paralyzed by a blizzard, teachers and students talk about it. But in times of tragedy, sometimes adults think if they don't say anything that kids won't ask questions. As educators, it is critical to address our own anxious feelings -- fear of gathering, fear of danger, fear of our own prejudice -- before we enter the school. Our task as educators and counselors and parents is to push away our own fears so that our children feel a sense of safety and security while still acknowledging the enormity of the tragedy.

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When school adults ignore children's curiosity and their need for explanation, they can make things worse. It is critical to provide information and explain policy changes in order to settle parents' fears. Kids can process heartbreaking news as long as it is communicated in a caring and developmentally appropriate way. I have seen children tolerate bad news and find relief when words express the unspeakable. Silence, on the other hand, can be deafening.

Sometimes school adults get anxious about reassuring students because they are worried that that they are projecting a false sense of confidence. Adults, after all, are people too. We are human. Our knowledge is limited. We don't understand everything that has happened. But we educators need to be mindful that we don't communicate our own bewilderment to our students. We need to be careful about using language like "always" and "never." We need to regain our balance, seek help from peers or other professionals, and realize that we don't have to soldier on alone.

Sometimes during a crisis, there can be a sense of isolation and scarcity. Small acts of kindness go a long way to help us to feel control over our environment and instill a sense of calm. I often see that people are comforted when they find ways to feed each other. When we started an advising group to make sure that every student had a home base at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, the teachers brought out all the Dunkin' Donuts and fed the students as a way to reinforce connection.

Because Massachusetts schools were on April vacation last week, many students will return with variable understanding about what happened. Some children will have been away, while others will have been glued to their televisions as they sat in their apartments, watched disturbing replays of chase scenes and shootouts. Others may have seen their families fight because they were so tense and powerless with cabin fever. Other children may have been sitting with relatives who were injured or grieving because someone died.

Teachers must be nimble in adapting to the range of reactions. Parents will have different thresholds for what information they choose to share with their children. Sometimes teachers may "spill the beans" and provide too much graphic detail or spend too much class time discussing the disturbing events. It is key to distribute talking points so that the school adults can be all on the same page. This doesn't always happen. We assume that intuition and common sense will prevail, but schools thrive on flexible guidelines that allow for innovation but also provide structure.

When some children and adolescents get nervous or tense, they may make inappropriate comments. It is vital to understand the anxiety underlying the comment and to use it as a teachable moment about tolerance. Some kids may be embarrassed about showing strong emotions or about seeing other people crying, so they try to distract people by making jokes. Other kids may be irritable or angry for no apparent reason. This mood change may indicate that they have been "triggered" in ways that are not readily apparent to caring school adults. Some kids may be angry because they felt threatened.

It's not easy to find a constructive way to channel anger, but it is critical and can make the difference between a community that moves forward or one that splinters into divided factions. I suggest asking children how they blow off steam when they are upset. For some, physical exercise helps, such as singing, dancing, or breathing. Another helpful technique is to draw angry words on butcher pager, hang it up, and then throw water balloons at it. Even kids who aren't angry like to do this. Community meetings with singing can uplift spirits.

Some schools encourage their students to express their feelings through artwork or spontaneous memorials, including floral arrangements. When a school does this, it is useful to set a time line for how long the tributes will stay up. For example, one of my colleagues is thinking about making flower memorials and then using them as part of compost for a garden.

It can be helpful to talk with students about how they can support one another. Are there good questions that they can ask each other? Teachers can lead discussions about how the students can take care of each other through shared lunch or a grade-wide sports game. It's also important to encourage the children to speak up if they are worried about a peer. Sometimes kids know that another child is suffering long before the child is on the adults' radar. Tell students what signs to look for such as withdrawal, thoughts of revenge, difficulty sleeping, or mood swings. Tell them how to communicate their concerns with an assigned adult.

None of this is easy, but it's important to organize, to communicate, and to have a school-wide plan. Leaders need to evoke a sense of strength and safety for students whose innocence may have been shattered. And remember, if you walk like you have gold in your pocket, soon you will.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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