Emotional Recovery Begins with Teachers

Emotional Recovery Begins with Teachers

As we mark the sad first anniversary of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, it’s worth reflecting on how survivors recover from such events. Violent attacks on schools don’t terrify only students. Teachers, administrators, staff and parents, too, must grapple with their own fear and anxiety before they can help children recover and eventually settle once more into learning. This goes not only for those directly affected by the shooting, but for the nationwide school community as well.

If you’re a teacher, the school is counting on you in particular to do this emotional work. For the students’ sakes, you need to be able to think clearly, demonstrate calm to others, and just walk through hallways without debilitating anxiety. You need to make peace with the discomfort of uncertainty and focus on what you can do to keep yourself safe. You need, in short, to manage—not suppress—your own emotions. Only then can you reach out meaningfully to students struggling with the same task.

How exactly to do this is neither obvious nor easy, especially since adults are often set in their emotional ways. But the RULER skills we teach at the Center—recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions—equip adults and children alike to cope with the aftermath of school violence or any other trauma life may bring.

Here are some RULER-based suggestions for teachers on managing emotions after an episode of school violence.

Feel your feelings. During a traumatic event, “not feeling” your feelings is fine. Shock can leave you numb, and having “frozen feelings” for a while can even be protective. But eventually, emotions must and will emerge. Maybe you’re terrified to return to school, enraged at the perpetrator, grieved at the loss of life, or just in disbelief. Allow all these feelings. Be aware of them. Give yourself permission and space to experience them; otherwise they’ll slow down your healing process or even show up as physical symptoms. People’s responses to trauma and grief vary widely, so you might feel anything at any time. That’s fine too.

Consider regulating them. Once your feelings are in focus, you can decide how you want to act on or react to them. You might channel anger into a brisk run or a letter to your congressperson, or you might choose a calming strategy like meditation or prayer. If you are sad, you might choose to mourn and grieve alone or with others. Perhaps you’ll want to up-regulate temporarily with music or a friendly phone call. Loving self-talk is always in order. These strategies do not deny your true feelings, since you’re aware of what you’re doing. They simply help balance you by guiding emotions in new or constructive directions.

Reframe your fear and anxiety. Instead of saying to yourself, “I don’t want to go into that building—how am I ever going to teach again?” try saying, “My students need me, so I’ll focus on making this day okay for them.” Or “I will do my part to make sure my class/school is as safe as possible, and I’ll teach my children the emotional skills to recover from traumatic events.”

Don’t go it alone. For many of us, talking to other people about feelings is hard, but the risk can be well worth it. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and our feelings are meant to be shared; in fact, keeping them in is harmful to your health. So talk to someone you trust, someone who can truly listen to and validate your feelings. Some schools or communities organize group conversations; these are often well worth taking part in.

Soothe your own feelings and those of the people around you. For maximum resilience, your brain needs periods of positive neurochemistry. So each day, pick at least one soothing activity—a hot bath, a crossword puzzle, a session with a sketchbook or a journal—that eases you into a physiological relaxation response. And do something soothing for your friends and your students each day, too. Gifts of compassion heal the giver as well.

The heartbreaking and heart-healing emotional work that teachers face after a school attack is daunting, to say the least. But students are counting on them to do it. In the wake of tragedy, teachers’ emotional leadership helps to restore precious equilibrium to the community of learners.

Robin Stern, Ph.D.  Associate Director

Diana Divecha, Ph.D. Research Affiliate