The new year is only days away and soon children will return to school, many with fears for their safety following the December 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is a natural response to the tragedy by children of all abilities.
Parents have most likely talked to their children about what happened and helped to calm and reassure them in the comfort of their homes surrounded by the safety of their family. However, that sense of security and feeling of safety may fade away with the approaching return to school. Some children with special needs may now associate school with violence and danger.
Parents should not be alarmed if a child with special needs starts getting anxious, having nightmares or headaches/stomachaches, acting out, or crying for no apparent reason. If any of these things happen, ask your child if she is afraid and talk about what it feels like to be afraid. Help them use words like “scared” and “hurt” to describe their fears, if they’re able to talk.
Find a good children’s book about how to handle fear, such as When I Feel Scared by Cornelia Maude Spelman. Helping an anxious child find a stuffed animal or other object that she can take to school with her for reassurance, as suggested in When I Feel Scared, is a great idea. Children with special needs often respond better to concrete objects rather than abstract phrases.
However, teaching a child to repeat to herself, “I am safe at school” might also help to assuage any fears she may have about returning to school or any that arise once she’s there. In order to assure that a child will remember the reassuring phase, repeat it often whenever something scary happens in a TV program, there’s a loud noise, or some other startling sound or event.
Parents should also ask teachers if the school has a plan for possible attacks on the school or students, such as the one followed by the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary that most likely prevented many casualties. Often special needs classes are in areas away from regular classes, which while isolating, may be an advantage in a school shooting or other type of attack event.
However, many students with special needs are included in classes with typical students, so parents need to make sure that there are safety protocols in place. If not, the local school board should be contacted about making sure safety drills, locked entries, and other safety measures are instated in their children’s schools.
Teachers should try to make the first day back to school for students with special needs as typical as possible, making sure there are plenty of activities to re-establish the classroom routine and keep students too busy to think about being afraid.
Questions may come up about the shooting, however, and teachers need to be prepared to answer them without giving too much information and placing emphasis on finding out if how children feel. Since many children with special needs have communication deficits, assistance may be needed.
Students may act out during school hours if startled by an intercom, school bells, or other loud noises. Teachers need to be prepares and might want to have earphones available for students to block out noises, especially students that have autism or other syndromes that cause auditory sensitivity.
There should also be some time set aside for quiet activities that provide students with time to calm. If children bring small object from home for reassurance, they should be allowed to hold or cuddle with these “security blankets” during this time or any time they feel anxious or afraid.
Sometime during the first two or three weeks after returning to school, teachers should start teaching students how to move to a safe area and remain quiet. This may be in the form of a game, such as “Tyrannosaurus Tag.” Students pretend that there’s a tyrannosaurus on the loose and they have to hide from it or it will find them and turn them all into dinosaurs.
A number of strategies and activities can be used to make students feel safe and comfortable after they return to school next year. Most teachers are adept at creating a safe classroom atmosphere and students have been trained with fire and tornado drills how to react in emergencies. So, adding measures for a possible shooting or other attack should not be difficult.