Coping with the aftermath of national tragedies

In the current climate of terrorist attacks and disasters that have occurred recently in the UK, we have to ask the question “Are we equipped to help our young people make sense of the tragedies as they unfold?” Gill Coult, an education consultant has worked for over 27 years within Further Education and has supported students involved in gun and knife crimes and the resulting devastation.

Five percent of children will have suffered the loss of a parent by the time they are 16 years of age. 92% will have lost someone who is important to them. At any time around, 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil in their care.

Although these statistics give some idea of the scale of the issue regarding the loss of someone known to a young person, it doesn’t indicate the volume of youngsters affected by the acts of terrorism and disasters that have recently been hitting the news headlines.

The effect of national catastrophes on young people is much more difficult to assess. News is now so immediate and accessible including images that we may have preferred our young people not to see; that schools and colleges now have a duty to acknowledge and address these issues.

Schools and colleges have support procedures in place to accommodate personal bereavement but with the public outpouring of grief for events that we may not be involved with directly but observed through the media, education institutions will need to extend their support to cover these events. Irrespective of their location, people feel connected and therefore affected by what they see. However a sense of proportion must be emphasised that these catastrophes are rare.

Since November 2014, schools have been obliged to promote British values, generally through spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) sessions, although Ofsted assesses it through the curriculum too.

SMSC sessions involve:

  • The Spiritual in which they explore beliefs and experience; respect faiths, feelings and values; enjoy learning about oneself, others and the surrounding world; use imagination and creativity; reflect.

  • The Moral where they are taught to recognise right and wrong; respect the law; understand consequences; investigate moral and ethical issues; offer reasoned views.

  • The Social where they use a range of social skills; participate in the local community; appreciate diverse viewpoints; participate, volunteer and co-operate; resolve conflict; engage with the “British values” of democracy, the rule of law, liberty, respect and tolerance.

  • The Cultural where they appreciate cultural influences; appreciate the role of Britain’s parliamentary system; participate in culture opportunities; understand, accept, respect and celebrate diversity.

The Citizenship Foundation is currently piloting the National SMSC Quality Mark and will be rolled out across UK schools from September 2017 onwards bringing cohesion and consistency across the school sector.

From July 2015, schools have a legal duty to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised, which has implications for SMSC. In secondary schools, the Department for Education recommends using the citizenship curriculum to this end. Many elements of citizenship education, also taught in Further Education (FE) colleges, support SMSC, including appreciating diversity, understanding different viewpoints and collaborating for change.

By using these initiatives, teaching staff are embedding information, which hopefully, in time, will equip young people to reflect on previous discussions and work through the situation more easily. Dealing with tragedy on a large scale should not necessarily be reactive although at times this cannot be avoided.

Obviously, policies and procedures vary hugely between institutions and with funding being the driving force in FE colleges it is a concern whether they are able to deliver or carry on the work of SMSC. Although the current level of terrorist acts is unprecedented, we have to deal with the aftermath and support our young people. We need to be prepared and have an automatic system for dealing with these events as they happen. If support is not available in a timely way, bereaved students often fall behind academically and in Further and Higher Education, their attendance can also be affected leading to non-completion of their course.

Advice for those supporting students

A more personalised support will be required for any young person who has been directly involved in any of the tragedies such as witnessing the event or loosing someone in the incident, but there is general guidance available.

In 2015, the University of Virginia set out guidelines for helping staff to deal with terrorism in particular but many of the pointers are also appropriate for natural disasters. They include staff being able to do the following.

  • Talk about terrorism and attacks by giving non-judgmental, unbiased information. This maybe the only forum a student has to air his or her views or to understand what has happened. As teachers, we are often their only source of support.

  • Review what has happened by giving basic facts of the disaster in order to deal with speculation and dispel rumors. Review what they understand.

  • Help students express their feelings about the tragedy. It’s important to put strong feelings into words to try to minimise anger, out of control feelings and actions. Identify their fears and reassure them.

  • Express anger in an appropriate manner. It’s important that the understandable anger is targeted at the terrorist not the nationality, faith, gender or colour. Discourage stereotypes and prejudice.

  • Discuss constructive responses. We can and do cope with tragedies. Affirm that services are working at the scene and people are being helped. There are procedures in place to keep us safe and tragedies are infrequent and their occurrence should not stop us doing our normal routine. Terrorism is only successful if we live in fear and if it disrupts our lives.

  • Be thoughtful, honest and not opportunistic. When discussing such events with young people remember that we will probably have heard the reports and background information, often youngsters only dwell on the images that hinders their understanding. The institution will need to make a decision about how and when such information is discussed and at what level. If the students do not want to confront the information, it would be better to limit the information given, provide minimal, accurate information on breaking news and take the discussion further if required.

  • Anxiety and stress can be transmitted to students so if you’re uncomfortable about leading the discussion, seek advice and maybe someone else will take over.

There are many organisations with vast experience that can be contacted to offer help and support but often it is teachers who students turn to for advice and comfort in the first instance. Therefore in the current climate, it is essential that we expect the unexpected and have systems in place that can automatically be clicked into gear when or if the need arises. As the world shrinks due to immediate, graphic media coverage, it is important to be ready and most importantly to be consistent across the organisation. It does not provide the opportunity for staff to express their own views on the tragedy or to go into unnecessary detail.

In conclusion, a timely response to any given tragedy is important to reduce the level of disruption. It should be agreed whether these matters are dealt with through the tutorial or support teams but in reality all the teaching staff should follow the college procedures and be able to respond corporately to any queries.