The Ottumwa Courier

December 18, 2012

Experts offer tips to talk about tragedy

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Your children may not ask you about the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, but they may be hearing about the incident.

“You don’t want to push it on them,” said Mike Stiemsma, a school psychologist who visits schools within the Great Prairie Area Education Agency’s district. “Gently [feel out] where they are in terms of [awareness of the incident].”

The murder of kindergartners may be the biggest topic of the day — or the least discussed.

“Not one of the children has brought that up that I’m aware of,” said Deb Cook, principal of both Eisenhower Elementary School in Ottumwa as well as the Early Childhood Development Program. “I have had a few parents email and ask what we’ve done. It was mostly teachers talking about it in the morning.”

The psychologist, who had visited one school building Monday, also noticed the topic was more active among teachers and administrators.

“Some children may not have any idea. Today was a normal day,” Cook said Monday.

She said in her grandchildren’s home, Mom changes the channel when coverage of the shooting comes up on television.

 If they had brought the subject up, Cook said, teachers would have discussed the subject with children.

That’s not a bad way to go, said Stiemsma.

“Be a strong observer [of your] children,” he said.

Be prepared to ask what’s on their mind. And if they do express fears of being shot or that someone might want to hurt them, parents can both reassure kids that they are safe and provide some honest answers tailored to the child’s age.

“What parents and educators can do is give accurate information,” said Mike Peters, the school social worker at Great Prairie Area Education Agency. “I know it’s a difficult subject to talk about.”

“Be brief, stick to the facts, and, especially with younger kids, do not spend a lot of time speculating,” Stiemsma said. “Be concise and concrete.”

Acknowledge the deaths, agreed Peters, but also be aware that “what if” questions about the incident — what if they had done this or that, how could we have prevented this, what changes need to take place — are probably too in depth for youngsters.

“Ask children how they feel about it, what are their thoughts on it,” said Peters.

Peters said to be aware of changes in children’s behaviors, like sleep patterns, appetite or playfulness.  

“What I ask teachers to keep an eye out for is students where this triggers some unresolved [trauma] from their past.”

“Encourage people, not just students, to express their feelings,” Peters continued. “Provide adequate support, that is, availability of a mental health professional; and know that some students may require more [help] than others. But the staff has to take care of themselves, too.”

“It’s been very much on the minds of teachers and administrators,” said Stiemsma. “They’ve been going over lockdown and intruder procedures and reassuring parents.”

“I’ve talked to employees and we’ve reviewed our crisis plans, which we do several times a year anyway,” Cook, “and we discussed staying alert.”

On Friday, another Ottumwa elementary principal, as well as the school superintendent, said it can be reassuring for teachers to go over their crisis plans again at this time.

While the local experts said it’s up to each parent whether they want their children to watch coverage of the shooting, they generally counseled not overdoing it.

“Certainly with media, we don’t want them drowning,” said Stiemsma.

“I would monitor that,” added Peters. “The media is inundated. Some people do become obsessed with it, and obviously that’s not healthy.”

Parents can trust themselves. They know what’s good for their children.

“Be a mom and be a dad,” he said. “Listen to your kids.”