Kids Need Sense of Normalcy, Reassurance They Are Not Alone in Time of Crisis

December 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As parents around the country nervously dropped their children off at school the week after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, Jeffrey Brown talks to psychaistrist Dr. Nancy Rappaport and psychologist Amy Smith about what to say and what not to say to children in times of crisis, and the importance of routine.

GWEN IFILL: Now Jeffrey Brown has more on how schools and parents in Connecticut and throughout the country can deal with these headlines of trauma and violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’re joined by two mental health experts who have worked in this area. Dr. Nancy Rappaport is a professor of psychiatry at HarvardMedicalSchool and directs the school-based programs for the Cambridge Health Alliance.

And Amy Smith is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Well, Dr. Rappaport, I would like to start really where Hari’s piece just ended, with children in Newtown itself, the ones closest to what happened. What needs to happen for them?

DR. NANCY RAPPAPORT, Harvard Medical School: What needs to happen in some ways is already happening, which is the outpouring of support that people are providing to them to say that they have suffered something which all of us feel heartbroken that they should have witnessed at any age, but certainly at a young age, and that their parents, their guardians, their teachers, the country is by their side and that they’re not alone with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amy Smith, same question for you, staying in Newtown and thinking in terms of school and educators. What should they be saying now to the students?

AMY SMITH, National Association of School Psychologists: The thing that will help these students the most is to understand that they have the support and that we return them to — the goal is that we return them to normalcy as quickly as possible and that they understand that there are — the adults that are with them will listen to their concerns, that they are keeping them safe, that very quickly we will get them back to their routine and get them back to things that they are more comfortable with.

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you, staying with you, what does normalcy mean now? What does routine mean now?

AMY SMITH: Normalcy in that community is going to be different for a while. And we need to understand that.

We need to think of the recovery from this event as being in stages. It’s going to take some time. Normalcy today is different than it was last week. And we need to first and foremost reassure these children that they are safe. We need to reaffirm that they are secure, that there is safety in their environment.

We need to examine how the children are doing and stay in contact with them. We need to provide a range of services for them and match the needs of the children to the services that we have available. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry. Go ahead.  

AMY SMITH: What we want to be able to do is provide the services that the child needs and respond to the needs that they have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Rappaport, what about children everywhere else? On the one hand, it’s a distant incident for many. On the other hand, it happened in a place that they’re so familiar with, school. What should be said to them?

NANCY RAPPAPORT: Well, first of all, I just want to pick up on the idea of normalcy.


NANCY RAPPAPORT: And schools always are doing this kind of providing structure and support and routine, so that, you know, children who have experienced a murder in the home or have had, you know, hurricanes or all sorts of tragedies look to schools as a place that is a safe place.

And that’s partly what strikes us as such a heinous act, is that what — children are safer going to school than they are out of school or before school. So, schools have been and continue to be a safe haven. And they do it by — just as we heard, by providing routines, morning meeting time, and giving people the — and giving children the opportunity to talk about what they’re worried about.

And so I would imagine — I know that many teachers, probably more likely starting in the third grade, but had a moment to take the lead of their students and to ask them, have you heard anything about what happened at Sandy Hook this weekend? And what was it like for you?

And, sometimes, hopefully, many teachers have the support of other people, like school counselors, school psychologists, social workers, a P.E. teacher, so that they didn’t — they had the support, so they weren’t by themselves while they were having what sometimes can be a painful discussion with students, because students sometimes are going to ask us the questions that we as a nation don’t know the answer to.

Why did this happen? What will we do as adults in the classroom as a country to keep our children safe? And…

JEFFREY BROWN: No, no, finish. I’m sorry.

NANCY RAPPAPORT: What I was going to say is what’s so important for us is not to give kids a false sense of confidence.

Even though I always tell schools and parents to let — to remind students that this is a rare event, and not to minimize that a rare event is still horrific, we also want to help students not feel as if they’re in imminent danger.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Amy Smith, this conversation must be happening in schools all over the country now. And there are no doubt children in schools that want to know more, perhaps want to know even grim details.

And then there are going to be other children that probably perhaps are otherwise occupied, that maybe don’t know that much and don’t care to know and appear quite normal. So, given that range, I mean, how do school — how do teachers, principals and counselors respond?

AMY SMITH: First of all, I would like to reinforce the idea that schools are very safe places. They certainly are very safe places.

One of the things that we can help our children do is understand the difference between something that can happen — clearly, these types of horrific events can happen. But the probability of them happening is extremely small. And we need to help students and faculty and parents and communities understand that that’s true.

When you’re speaking to kids about what has occurred, I think it’s important that you give them direct, honest and factually accurate information, but you do that at a level that is developmentally appropriate for that child.


AMY SMITH: You will talk differently to a 7-year-old than you would a 17-year-old.

Some of the children will have more questions. And follow up and answer those questions. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Amy, I’m sorry. We’re running out of time.



AMY SMITH: And to make sure that they feel safe, let them be the guide as they ask you different questions. Follow up on the questions that they have, but don’t overwhelm them with information. Let them be the guide.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right.

Amy Smith and Dr. Nancy Rappaport, thank you both very much.

AMY SMITH: Thank you.

NANCY RAPPAPORT: Thank you. You’re welcome.