Chamblee Middle School counselor Robert Rice said after a crisis, it is important to be clear and factual with students—especially younger ones—so they don’t come up with their own ideas about a tragedy.
“The aftermath or stages of grief, they’re not linear, and at any point something could trigger that sadness or grief,” Rice said.
Rice said helping students cope during the aftermath of a crisis or with the loss of a loved one varies depending on the age of the child. At the elementary level, Rice said he will have students draw for him and talk about what they drew—he said that children will draw emotions they cannot express in words.
At Price Elementary in Atlanta Jan. 31, a student allegedly shot a student he reportedly had an ongoing dispute with. The shooter was apprehended and the victim received minor injuries, but Rice said an experience such as this can be traumatic for some students.
Counselors and school staff are trained on how to deal with a crisis situation. Rice said there is a process school staff members go through during and after an incident to maintain order and reinforce the fact that students are in a safe place.
“Many of the things that we do for a crisis we’ve practiced before,” Rice said. “Occasionally there will be children that are very upset about things that may occur and we try to get them out of the general population.”
Rice said in some situations, counselors focus on addressing the needs of students who are most affected by the incident. He said it’s sometimes best to isolate children who are extremely upset rather than have them around other students.
“We do grief groups with students who haven’t come to the point where they’re accepting it,” Rice said. “I’m not sure we ever resolve things completely but we can get to the point where we accept the loss.”
Rice said there is often a tendency to move on and get things back to normal as quickly as possible after an incident. However, he said students who have been through a traumatic experience need time to process their emotions.
“We have a tendency to try to let people think that the things they’re feeling are just temporary and not real, but it’s important for us to let them know that they are real feelings,” Rice said.
In the case of the loss of a relative, Rice said that even if a child feels very connected to that person their parents usually send them to school.
“What happens to the child very often is that they go through those stages of grief at school,” Rice said.
Rice said students can process their emotions in a range of different ways: acting out in class, rage or anger, negative behavior, or becoming quiet or disconnected. It’s important that school administrators and teachers communicate with the child or the parents, Rice said, so they can understand what they are is going through.
“If an administrator doesn’t know what is happening they will misinterpret what’s going on with children,” Rice said. “When the parent is able to communicate what’s going on with us it makes it so much easier.’
Rice said his job is to help students express their emotions and talk about what they are feeling. Additionally, he said it is helpful for the student to talk about the person they lost to make those feelings more concrete.
“What I do with the child is identify the pleasant times they had with their lost loved one so we can get them to see the good that person was able to bring into their life,” Rice said.
If the child comes to speak to Rice, he makes sure to notify his or her parents and teachers. Occasionally, a student’s parents will contact Rice and ask him to work with their child. Rice said he and his colleagues try to maintain an environment where students feel comfortable enough to approach them if something is wrong.
“We make ourselves as visible as we can so students can see us as someone to talk to. We want to give them tools for how they can get over something,” Rice said.