Children’s responses to traumatic events

Our hearts are full of sadness and love and support for all the families and those who work at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We pray for all the children and grown-ups who lost their lives.

Teachers and parents in Newtown, and also throughout the country and around the world, will be coping with their children’s questions and fears, not only now, but for many weeks, and sometimes much longer, about this traumatic and tragic event. I recently contributed to a post for the Responsive blog that includes many ideas for people who work in schools – here, as an additional means of support, I would like to reference some of the behavioral responses elementary-age children may exhibit that may affect their coping and learning.

Awareness of these possibilities can help teachers and parents work together to support students and suggest to principals, district administrators and state and federal officials ways to provide support for our teachers. (See additional references at end of post.)

  • Children may revert to behaviors that may seem “babyish,” such as thumb-sucking, rocking, hair-twisting, humming, baby-talking. These are natural, self-soothing behaviors, remembered from earlier years, bringing comfort to the child and serving as communication to us that the child is coping with their stress and may need additional comfort from adults or a lessening of tension in the immediate environment.
  • Children may seem to be less responsive to direction, to occasionally not be listening, to not always remember simple routines, to sometimes be more easily upset when redirected.
  • Children may not be able to always remember content and facts they have recently learned, take more time to solve problems, seem sometimes to be searching for answers when asked to answer a question, appear to be more anxious than usual in testing situations.
  • Children may have more somatic complaints, tummy aches, headaches, specific worries about their bodies, e.g. “My wrist really hurts!”
  • Children may be more impulsive or sensitive with peers in social situations or group work, may cry more often, raise their voices, or, at the other extreme, withdraw more frequently from arguing.

Please note that I have used the word “may” to characterize all these possible responses. Some children will show none of these signs, perhaps just seem a little quieter or a little edgy. This does not necessarily mean they are not dealing with stressful thoughts, but they may be coping in ways that draws less attention. Below, I have listed two exceptional resource pages with more detailed information:

From the National Association of School Psychologists:
http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/terror_general.aspx

From The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
http://www.nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/edu_materials/Understanding_Child_Traumatic_Stress_Brochure_9-29-05.pdf

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