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We don’t provide mental health advice, counselling, or treatment. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact your local community crisis team. You can also reach out to the Indigenous Hope for Wellness Help Line 1-855-242-3310, the Black Youth Helpline 1-833-294-8650, or Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868.

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Responding to tragic events

Tragic events, like accidents, natural disasters, violence, and hate crimes, can affect individuals, classes, schools, communities, and beyond. Your school board has processes in place for dealing with critical incidents and tragedies – you will be supported as you help your school community through times of uncertainty, tragedy, and loss.

Why this is important

  • News and information, both factual and speculative, can cause students to experience a wide range of emotions and can affect students’ ability to learn and how they interact at school.
  • Tragic events or situations can compound existing challenges for students, staff, and parents/caregivers who may already be coping with ongoing injustices and harms, or losses.
  • The calm and supportive classroom environment and predictable routines of school can be helpful to students following a tragic event or during times of uncertainty.

Common reactions to tragic events

How students react to events will vary. Developmental stage, physical or emotional proximity to the event, and prior experience with traumatic circumstances can affect how students respond. Reactions can last for days and sometimes weeks. Reactions may include:

  • absenteeism
  • anger or irritability
  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • lack of focus
  • physical complaints
  • sadness
  • social distancing

Typically, they subside over time as we help students talk through feelings, reassure them that they are safe and protected, and help them to gain perspective.

How schools can help

Lean on the guidance and resources from your board’s mental health leadership team and critical-incident response team as you work through times of uncertainty and tragedy. Here are some general considerations for you and your team.

  • During challenging times, the reactions of adults will set the tone for students.
  • Set a calm pace for learning, extending deadlines as needed.
  • Maintain regular, predictable routines.
  • Reduce the emphasis on and duration of formal lessons.
  • Consider whether any sensitive curriculum content might need to be delayed/changed.
  • Use learning activities that allow you to float and check in with students.
  • Create quiet spaces for student reflection and dialogue within the classroom.
  • Encourage students to take breaks from the news and social media.
  • Rather than starting a discussion at a class level, invite students to initiate conversations when the time is right for them.
  • Listen well and notice how students are viewing the situation.
  • Keep explanations of situations or events age-appropriate and factual.
  • Calm worries, reaffirm safety procedures, and reassure students that they are safe.
  • Validate feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, etc., and note that it may take time to work through these emotions.
  • Encourage students to draw on their faith,
  • natural supports, self-care skills, and other
  • sources of strength.
  • Model compassion, positive coping, and
  • self-care skills.
  • Help students to notice quiet heroes and signs of hope.
  • Make a list of students who may be at risk given proximity to the tragic event, prior trauma, etc.
  • Monitor these students more closely, checking in with them each day.
  • Be mindful that there may be students without an obvious link or vulnerability who may experience difficulty.
  • Watch for changes in student behaviour or emotions that are excessive in duration and intensity.
  • Watch for signs that student behaviour or emotions are interfering with day-to-day functioning at school.
  • If you have concerns, record your observations and consult with the school mental health professional assigned to your school.
  • Discuss your concerns with the student in a compassionate and age-appropriate manner.
  • Use regular school/class protocols to connect with parents/caregivers to discuss your observations and concerns.
  • Welcome students who may be more at risk in a calm, caring, and intentional way each day.
  • Let students who are struggling know about available school supports and how to access them.
  • Create opportunities for quiet check-ins and dialogue.
  • Maintain academic expectations, but soften these if a student seems overwhelmed.
  • Help students to complete school tasks by chunking assignments, pairing them with another student, etc.
  • Offer more time to complete tests and assignments, as needed.
  • Allow students to cue you if they are struggling and want to talk or need to step back from a task for a time.
  • Help students to engage in activities that may assist with healing (e.g., write a card, make a donation).
  • Know about available supports at the school, board, and community level.
  • Know your local pathway to access services.
  • Work with the school team to describe available supports to the parent/caregiver and/or student.
  • With parent/caregiver consent, share your observations to assist with referrals and treatment planning.
  • Continue to provide classroom accommodations to students struggling after a tragic event.
  • Use classroom strategies recommended by the service provider.
  • Recognize that grief reactions can last for many days or weeks.
  • Take the opportunity to process the situation and your feelings with your friends, family, and colleagues.
  • Try to keep regular schedules and routines.
  • Remember to eat, sleep, play, exercise, and laugh. Give yourself permission for down time.
  • Practise positive ways of coping with sadness, fear, anger, and worry.
  • Ask for help. You don’t have to face this experience alone. Help is available for you through your employee assistance program, or you may wish to consult with your family physician or contact a local helpline.

Resources about supporting students after tragic events