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September 1, 2014

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In discussing tragedy with youngsters, experts say be calm, reassuring and straightforward

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Julio Cortez / AP

Officials are on the scene outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where authorities say a gunman opened fire inside an elementary school in a shooting that left more than 20 people dead, including children, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

Connecticut Elementary School Shooting

David Freedman, right, kneels with his son Zachary, 9, both of Newtown, Conn., as they visit a sidewalk memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Launch slideshow »

In the wake of Friday’s deadly mass-shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, it’s natural for students across the country to be unnerved and upset, said Rosemary Virtuoso, an official who oversees the Clark County School District’s crisis response team.

Parents and teachers need to be straightforward, calm and reassuring when discussing tragic events with children, Virtuoso said.

“We never try to avoid, dispel or discount kids’ concerns. Let’s talk about them so they’re not covered up. Let’s take control and let’s show how we can practice to be prepared (for these situations),” she said. “We have a sense of fear because we feel like we have no control.”

The School District employs a specialized crisis team of two administrators, three counselors and six psychologists who provide grief-counseling services, respond to traumatic events and develop crisis plans for schools.

Clark County School District teachers were not encouraged to bring up Friday’s shooting with students, because officials believe it’s the parents’ place to discuss with their children tragedies involving death, district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said in an e-mail.

But if a student broaches the subject, Fulkerson said teachers are allowed to use “common sense” and answer questions.

In the case a student becomes overly consumed or extremely upset about the shooting, counselors are available to provide help, she said.

When discussing the shooting, Virtuoso said it’s important for both parents and teachers to emphasize to children that their school has plans in place designed to keep them safe on campus.

“They should use this as an opportunity to discuss what would we do if an event occurred here,” Virtuoso said. “Reinforce the fact that the school has a plan in place about safety, that (students) have to comply with what teachers and administrators are saying and that we will do our best to ensure their safety.”

The National Association of School Psychologists offers a variety of resources and tips for how adults should address national tragedies with children.

Adults should reassure children they are safe, let them know it’s okay to feel upset and encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, the NASP says. It’s best to tell children to the truth about the situation while sticking to the facts and avoiding speculation or embellishment, according to the organization.

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