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University Counseling Center

Responding After a Tragedy: An In-The-Classroom Guide

For those of us who have contact with students in the classroom you may wish to help students through these events by providing time for discussions. When should these discussions occur? It is probably best to consider a discussion within a week of the tragic event.

Even if you prefer not to provide discussion time during class it is probably best to acknowledge the event. A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty with focus, concentration, and motivation. Failure to mention the event can result in students becoming more upset or angry. If you choose not to devote discussion time to the event, you might mention to students that there are resources on and off campus where they can obtain support:

Some useful links:

  • Recovering emotionally from disasterDisasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, transportation accidents or wildfires are typically unexpected, sudden and overwhelming. For many people, there are no outwardly visible signs of physical injury, but there can be nonetheless an emotional toll. It is common for people who have experienced disaster to have strong emotional reactions. Understanding responses to distressing events can help you cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.
  • Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress
    People may experience a variety of reactions, many of which are understandable in the context of experiencing or witnessing traumatic events such as the hurricanes. Experiencing physical or emotional symptoms in response to a traumatic event is normal and is called a traumatic stress reaction.
  • Tips for College and University Students: Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Shootings
    For University students, a good resource provided by the American Psychological Association specifically for the Virginia Tech disaster

If you decide to provide an opportunity for discussion in your classroom, here are some important considerations:

  • Discussions can be brief. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of the class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. You can even consider stating ahead of time, if appropriate to the circumstance, that time will be made available at the next class for discussion so students can plan ahead.
  • Acknowledge the event. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event, and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.
  • Allow brief discussion of the “facts”, and then shift to emotions. Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and debating certain details. People are often more comfortable discussing facts than feelings. So, it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions. If you are not aware of the facts, consider inviting someone into the class to provide this information from UCC, DOS, Police, or other campus office.
  • Invite students to share emotional, personal responses. You might lead off by saying, “Often it is helpful to share your own feelings and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality of what’s happened, but it may take away from the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful or traumatic events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”
  • If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it may be important to point out that we all cope with stress and trauma in different ways. There is no right way to react.
  • Be prepared for blaming. When we are upset and confused, we often look for someone or something to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of the strong emotion we are feeling. Attributing blame is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things right. If the discussion gets stuck in blaming, you may try to move the discussion forward by saying, “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and while that is a normal part of this process, it might be helpful to move on to other thoughts and feelings you may be having.”
  • It is normal for people to seek an explanation for why the tragedy occurred. Through understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be avoided or prevented in the future. We might comment, “As human beings it is in our nature to seek a deeper understanding of traumatic events. It is a challenge to understand an unthinkable event. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes necessary.” As faculty members we should resist the temptation to make meaning of the event. This is often not helpful as it interferes with a person’s natural process to derive their own meaning which is filtered through their own life experiences as well as their culture, gender and belief systems.
  • Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of the support services available to them as noted above.

Guide Table of Content

Addendum