Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dealing with Crisis

Finally, this week is over.

Warning: Depressing Post Ahead

I have had a few of you email me about how to handle situations like this with your own kids. Now, I am the first to admit that I am in no way an expert in psychology and I have never had any kind of crisis training (seems like a gaping hole in my education, doesn't it?). I also do not claim that this is how you should handle anything because this may or may not work for you. This is, however, how I made it through this week. Sometimes, just having a plan can be a major step forward.

I do not know how it is in other places and I am guessing there is something similar in place wherever you are. My district is a part of a larger consortium of several other districts that share counselors at times like this. When the neighboring district lost three kids in a car crash last year, our counselors spent a few days there, while their counselor could be seen in our halls this last week. These amazing people handle the major counseling issues, but there is no avoiding some of it in your room.

Full disclaimer: I still don't know what to say.

1. If you do not have any in your room, go buy a couple boxes of real Kleenex. A roll of toilet paper just isn't going to cut it today.

2. While you are out, grab some Tylenol. You will not believe the headaches that can suddenly occur on days like this.

3. If at all possible, get your own meltdown out of the way. Depending on how close you were to the student, this could come at any time. Our counselors have some varying opinions about letting students see you cry, but they all agree that completely losing it in front of your class should be avoided at all costs. Best advice from the biggest, meanest, manliest sophomore you have ever seen: "If you need to cry, cry. That's what I do."

4. Along those lines, get someone else to read the statement. First thing Monday morning, we were to read an announcement to our first hour class. This is to make sure everyone knows what happened and to clear up any rumors that may have started. Even when I did not know the student well, I have a terrible time reading these statements. For this one, I couldn't even look at the paper with out tearing up, so I knew there was no way I was going to make it through saying it out loud. Try reading it out loud before class starts to see if you can actually say the words. If not, go find one of the counselors to read it for you.

5. Be prepared for any emotion to come on at any time. Monday, kids were still more or less in shock. There were a lot of sudden teary outbursts. We literally had a counselor assigned to our hallway, so any student who had to leave the room was immediately intercepted. If this is not the case, be sure to call the office and let someone know. Many students just wanted a moment alone, which is fine, we just need to know where they are. On Tuesday, some of the anger was beginning to show, especially by some of his close friends. Kids need to know that this is normal. For some, this may be their first experience with death and they may need reassurance that what they are feeling is not wrong. I had an explosion in my room when our Drama Queen told someone that he shouldn't be mad at a dead person.

6. If you had the student in class, if at all possible, find a way to rearrange your desks. If nothing else, at least get new seating arrangements.

7. Get your kids moving. Our philosophy is to keep things as normal as possible. There will be students that think we should sit around all day and cry. There are others who may not be overly affected by the situation and do not need to be pulled into the crisis. Either way, kids are going to need something to occupy their wandering mind. Down time is the enemy here. My plan for Monday was to work on balancing chemical equations. On paper. Sitting down. Even though we weren't there yet and they may or may not remember any of it, I switched the plan to a lab over reaction types. It has 13 different mini labs in it and kept kids moving and changing their focus every few minutes. And it was a step-by-step-now-do-this type of lab, so kids didn't have to really think too hard to get to the next step. This apparently had an impact because I had three parents call me the next day and say thank you.

8. #7 will not keep all kids on task. There was, of course, non-chemistry discussion. In general, we are supposed to discourage those discussions, but there are some kids who really need to say some things. If they know you were close to the student, it is entirely possible that they will want to say them to you. To be honest, I think these comments are healthy (again, no training) and normal. Most of the side discussions were memories. It doesn't take much, however, to cross over into the "whys" and "what ifs" that invariably come. Our official response to that is "It does not matter anymore." I have a hard time with this, because, while true, it seems kind of harsh. But then again, that's life. Kids who can't get past this need to be referred to the counselor. Also, any sentence that starts with, "Well, I heard..." is to be immediately cut off.

9. Plan something interesting, but not crucial for the day of the funeral. We do not let school out the day of a funeral for a student or staff member. Anyone is allowed to go, but we are also here for the kids who do not feel like they need to attend. We get a lot of criticism for this. From everyone. I used to feel that way until my daughter was in kindergarten. A sixth grade boy she did not know had died of cancer and they had the day off. She was adamant that she was required to attend the funeral and it took a lot of convincing her not to feel guilty that she wasn't. We do not want to put pressure on kids to do something they may not be ready for. On the flip side of that, be prepared for kids to go to the funeral simply to get out of school. Get over it and move on. We made golden pennies and shot off water rockets on that day. Something fun and educational, but no one has to make it up.

10. Don't expect to get much done for a few days, but keep moving on.

I don't know about you, but this has been amazingly therapeutic for me. Again, this is in no way, shape or form to be considered expert advice. Every situation is different and every reaction is different. Your district may very well have an entirely different philosophy on things and you may be required to handle situations differently. Sometimes, just knowing ahead of time can make all the difference.

Coming soon: Much more upbeat post having something to do with teaching.

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