EL PASO, Texas – As students in El Paso returned to school Monday, educators expected many of them would still be grappling with the grief that has wracked the community since 22 people were killed at a Walmart here.
It can be hard enough for anyone to explain the Aug. 3 shooting to themselves.
Explaining it to children can be a whole other challenge.
At once a teachable moment and a traumatizing one fraught with fear and heavy subjects like death and racism, experts say discussing the shooting with children at home or in the classroom requires a delicate balance.
"The last thing you want to do is instill more fear," said Manuel Castruita, the El Paso Independent School District's director of counseling and advising.
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In discussing the shooting, children's questions and interest in the subject should guide the conversation and the way teachers as well as parents talk about it should vary based on a child's age, experts say.
"There's a reason we don't teach algebra in kindergarten," says Stephen Brock, professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento.
The same logic goes for talking about a tragedy, he said.
Some children may not have any questions or be interested in talking at all about the shooting, he said. Younger school children may need reassurances that they are safe – that the man accused of carrying out the shooting is with the police now and cannot hurt them – but do not need some of the more frightening or traumatic details of the shooting, he said.
Brock borrows a phrase from Mister Rogers, too: Look for the helpers. He says parents and teachers can talk with younger children about the steps schools take to make a campus safer, such as assigning monitors to watch the playground and giving badges to identify visitors.
Chief communications officer Melissa Martinez said the district's standard practice is to have an increased presence of police on the first day of classes.
Counseling organizations were also quick to reach out to the district, Castruita said. And in recent years, the district streamlined the process for referring children to counseling, he said.
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The only student killed in the shooting, Javier Amir Rodriguez, 15, was from nearby Clint Independent School District. Classes resumed there in late July and students at his high school held a vigil for him in the days after the shooting.
Older children who have seen television reports about the shooting or heard conversations about it can tell when an adult is holding back, Brock said.
"Be prepared to teach about it," he said.
Castruita said classes may have a moment of silence, decorate boards with positive messages and look for community projects where they can help.
As signs of El Paso's grief pop up virtually everywhere, from billboards to flags flown at half-staff, signing get well cards or condolences can help give children a sense of control in a daunting time, Brock said.
"The power of doing something – pretty much anything – is great," he said.
But whether to take a child to the makeshift memorial that has sprouted behind the Walmart that was targeted Aug. 3 depends on each child and parent, Brock added.
"If a child wanted to go and had an interest, prepare them," he said.
A child who has no direct connection to the shooting but is surrounded by grieving may be reminded of a time they grieved, creating anxiety, Castruita said.
As adults grapple with explaining the shooting, he said adults should be willing to say they do not have all the answers or know all the details.
“It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he said.
Follow Andrew Oxford on Twitter: @andrewboxford
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: El Paso shooting: Talking about tragedy to students requires balance