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Helping Your Students Cope With a Violent World

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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A closeup of a young teenage woman's face. She's looking down and her chin is resting on her clasped hands. Her long, wavy hair is covering half of her face.

Recently I have been involved in several discussions about whether children are actually facing an unprecedented increase in exposure to violence or just the amped-up media of a world that has always been violent. I believe the latter. From ancient times to the present, there has been an endless parade of war, crime, and disaster. There are been times of burning witches, public hangings, and torture. In the 20th century, children faced two World Wars, gang wars during Prohibition (highlighted by constant machine gun fire), and a Great Depression. When I was a child, I lived under the threat of nuclear war. I still remember air raid drills, practicing duck and cover when we hid under our desks with our hand over our heads to protect us from nuclear bombs.

About a hundred people at most were on hand to witness public hangings in 19th-century England. Today, billions might witness or have access to view a beheading. With raging wars in the Middle East, daily terror in Israel, major attacks in Paris and Lebanon, a knifing in London, and an unprecedented number of mass murders in America (at least one per day, according to some studies), children cannot help but feel fear. Electronic media and news based on sensationalist reporting have amplified these events to dramatic portions.

Living in constant fear can cause children to experience depression, hopelessness, and helplessness. They can't learn if they don't feel safe. Teachers can go a long way to help students cope with their fears and put the current wave of violence in perspective. Here are ten quick ways to sooth your students' frayed nerves:

1. Bring the darkness into the light.

Discuss with your students what they fear and how it affects them. Discuss whether they have adults in their lives that they can talk to about what they see online or on television. Give names to that unknown darkness they're feeling. Show them that they aren't feeling their fears in isolation, but that they're part of a large number of others.

2. Stop the feeling of helplessness.

There are many projects that students can undertake to feel more empowered, such as writing letters of support to victims all over the world, or writing about what they feel to politicians and other leaders.

3. Build time machines.

Have students design their idea of a time machine, and use these creations to imagine going back into various periods of history. Once there, investigate the amount of violence that children faced, and then compare those findings with modern times.

4. Do a risk analysis.

Assign your students to analyze the various dangers that children face in today’s world, such as crossing the street, being injured in a storm, household accidents, or sports injuries. Compare those numbers with injuries from acts of violence.

5. Plan for disasters.

As individuals, have your students develop different plans of what could be done if the school and its students were facing danger. As a class, discuss the plans, combine the best elements of each, and present them to your school administration.

6. Invite first responders.

Organize an assembly with a number of your community's first responders. The focus would be on how children can protect themselves and their families in the event of an attack.

7. Start a fundraising project.

Raise money to send to the victims of violence or terrorism that will help them make the difficult transition to normalcy.

8. Demonstrate solidarity.

Organize your students to create a vigil for showing solidarity with the victims of violence or terrorism. Post pictures of the event online.

9. Communicate support.

Become "pen pals" with victims using social media to offer a friendly listening ear and an ongoing voice of encouragement.

10. Write letters to the editor.

Ask your students to write letters to the editor explaining their views about how to stop terror and violence. Help them write acceptable letters without influencing their content. Stress that they are free to say whatever they believe is right.

The more we can help our children give a face to nameless fear, inspire them to feel hopeful that things can improve, provide a context that shows both an historical perspective and a current one relative to the danger they face, and offer help to victims, the greater their chances of overcoming their fears. And if you have any other ideas that can help children get through these violent times, please share them below in the comments.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

Thank you! My first experience in Oakland as a principal in a tough neighborhood, was the affect of students when an ambulance and police car drove by with sirens. None of the students near me even reacted or looked. The work that must be done to reach such students requires a lot of depth and expertise, as well as empathy.


Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Ash,
The purpose of a time machine is to see that the past had violence, just as we have today. It's my belief that understanding Jim Crow would help black children better understand violence in the black neighborhoods today.I know first hand of the way it used to be because I was a blockbuster, one who bought homes for blacks in all white neighborhoods. My life was threatened, and I suffered emotionally and physically by angry whites. As a professional, I have worked in the toughest neighborhoods in the country helping improve the lives of black children; South Bronx, South Central L.A., Roxbury, Philly, Detroit and Chicago to name a few.
I refuse to get sucked into commenting further about the Israel Palestine issue, because it's too divisive, and so few Americans know the truth about what is going on here, but there is no comparison or moral equivilence between the murder of Israelis by terrorists and Israel's defending itself from that terror. The worst terror the Palestinians face is from their own government. Let's end this discussion.

Dr Sidney Simon's picture
Dr Sidney Simon
Retired Professor Emeritus of Education, University of Massachusetts

I was proud to have been one of Rick Curwin's teachers when he was at U. Mass.

He was born to do the work he is doing, and I hope he continues to make this world better. I saw it in him was back in the Values Clarification Years.

Thanks, Rick

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

I'd like to clarify my previous comment to Ash. I have been posting on this website for years and have tried to make my comments thought provoking as well as practical. Regardless of your political, religious or personal beliefs, I hope my posts have meaning for you and will help you with your students.In my life I have spent most of my energies helping minorities who live in the worst circumstances. In Israel this year and particularly in Jerusalem, there have been daily attacks, killings and attempted killings every day. I wrote this post a month ago, and the killing continues.There is so much propaganda on both sides of the Israeli/Palestine dispute that there are few facts to back up wild claims. These killings, however, are very real. An educational post is an inappropriate forum to discuss what is really going on the the Middle East. Let's focus on real children with real fears. If my comments to Ash sounded harsh, I apologise. Very recently, one of my grandchildren's teachers was knifed to death at a bus stop. I guess my personal pain influenced my response to Ash.

Imani19's picture

I completely agree with you Ash! Before I read the comment section, a friend and I had the exact same response to this blog post and we were pleased to see that someone else addressed it. While I do believe that the media often chooses to sensationalize events, often at the expense of accuracy, it still does not take away from the very real and harsh realities that black students face in their communities every day. I think that in theory many of the suggestions this post makes sound really productive. However, it is very general and would need more specificity if it were to apply to black children. I didn't agree with the time machine idea either as it pertains to black students. Not because it's a bad thing to connect the past and the present, but because when addressing what minorities experience there needs to be a very specific discourse that is sensitive to the audience it is meant for, especially considering the seriousness of the subject!

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Thank you for your comment, Imani19. I completely understand your concern with the time machine strategy.Being Jewish, a time machine that took me to 1939 would make me sick. I can't even watch a holocaust movie. But if the machine took me to 1948, I would be thrilled to see the birth of Israel, one of the best events in human history. A time machine for a African-American audience, could show the wonderful march on Washington lead by MLK. (I was there BTW). In the final analysis, it's just a suggestion and if it doesn't work for you, don't use it.

Austin Halliburton's picture

This is definitely an under-talked about subject. I think we can agree that students have always had to deal with violence, but unlike ever before students are constantly exposed to violence. With social media, the internet, and 24 hours news, a student could find a new threat daily instantly. With fear mongering being a common way to push agendas (no matter party affiliation) students have legit reasons to feel afraid. However, I think it is important for them to realize that they are actually pretty safe. I mean absent to random acts of violence and rare tragedies, American students have it pretty good. Allowing them to evaluate the real threats and allowing them to recognize the legit fears is a positive action on the part of the teacher.

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