What do you say to a third grader in north St. Louis County who worries about getting shot when she grows up?
As violence simmers down in Ferguson, those kinds of questions are likely to linger, so counseling agencies held two training sessions Thursday – at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Harris-Stowe State University – to help teachers and other school personnel learn how to calm students' fears.
They also want adults to be aware of when normal reactions have lasted too long or gone too far. Jerry Dunn, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, said the time to become concerned is about a month after the event.
“These are very normal reactions to an abnormal, distressing event,” Dunn said. “So children are having nightmares. They may be more clingy. They may be a little more antisocial. They may withdraw. Those are all typical reactions. When we get concerned is about four weeks out.
“If we’re still seeing the kids with these types of reactions – sleep difficulties, appetite difficulties, changes in mood, changes in behavior, certainly if we see self-injurious behavior, suicidal thoughts – then we want to be concerned. Or if the kids are really preoccupied with these events and can’t seem to let go and replace that with something that is more typically appropriate for their age.”
In general, Dunn told more than 100 people attending the session at UMSL – which had to be moved to a larger space because of unexpected demand – children will follow an adult’s lead, but adults need to follow the children as well.
Adults need to stay calm, Dunn said. “Our children are going to respond to you in the way you respond to them,” she added.
But adults also need to ask children directly what they need, then follow the children.
“They will take you where they need to go,” Dunn said.
The third grader who expressed concern about being shot was encountered by Tara Schillhahn, an elementary school guidance counselor at Armstrong school in the Hazelwood school district. During a break in the training at Harris-Stowe, she said she has had surprisingly few children reacting in a worrisome way to the events in Ferguson, but this girl came to her Thursday morning.
She “just talked about being nervous for her safety, and what happens when she gets older,” Schillhahn said. “Our discussions have been a lot of what they talked about today. It’s just listening and validating where they’re coming from and trying to help them re-establish that safety and security.
“We processed through that. Why do you feel that way? Why would you be in trouble? She had an opinion about some of the police, and we talked about where she gets that opinion from. I would just listen to her, and go where her thoughts and feelings take me.”
Bouncing back or getting stuck
During the UMSL training session, Dunn emphasized that most children bounce back on their own in a reasonable time after an event like the shooting and unrest in Ferguson. Overall, about 70 percent need no intervention, 20 percent benefit from brief support and the other 10 percent may need more intensive trauma-focused services to bolster their natural healing resources.
The help that adults can bring, she said, generally amounts to letting the kids talk about their feelings in a comfortable way.
“If we push it too much,” she said, “what we have found is that sometimes these children actually get stuck in talking about those events. We don’t want that to happen.
“We want to be able to modulate our response and allow kids to talk about these events, but also allow them to still be kids – get ready for soccer practice or algebra tests, not focus on or talk about these events so much that they are exclusive to other things.”
Context is very important, she added, so different children are likely to react different, based on how close they are to the events, whether anyone they know has been involved in similar events or whether a family member or neighbor is a law enforcement officer.
And different ages respond differently, Dunn added. So young children may regress in terms of sleeping or toilet training, while teens may have more serious reactions, have problems making healthy decisions or isolate themselves socially.
To help children of any age, she said, adults need to empathize, be honest about what they know and they can promise to accomplish and acknowledge that the child’s feelings make sense. Talking about the traumatic events will not make things worse, she added, but adults should not push children if they don’t want to talk.
Asked about the situation in Edwardsville, where the school superintendent told teachers not to discuss Ferguson – a guideline he has since relaxed, with detailed instructions coming next week – Dunn said the shooting and the unrest that followed could yield valuable lessons.
“There are very teachable moments on a variety of difficult topics and domains in these events,” she said. “Allowing children to talk about those things are important, but at the same time balance that with whatever the goals are, whether it’s in a classroom or for a coach.”
Adults can also help by maintaining their own healthy habits, so children can return to theirs.
“It is important for us to do everything we can to get the kids back into a routine and make sure that they are safe and sound,” Dunn said. “My rules are keep the kids safe, healthy and happy – in that order.”
At the Harris-Stowe session, Gov. Jay Nixon made a brief appearance. He emphasized that schools are key in dealing with the issues of race, poverty and education that have surfaced in Ferguson and elsewhere.
He said he wants to make sure that teachers have the skills “to deal with the very real mental challenges that arise from any sort of dramatic, traumatic events. … Normalcy comes about when the most significant institutions are able to help.”
The chaos in Ferguson can be devastating to young minds, Nixon said.
“They’re having a hard time processing what’s going on,” he said. “Too much is happening. When the world seems the most traumatic, it’s really important that reasoned, calm voices and very open ears and trusted institutions and people be guideposts for these folks, to process the challenging information.”
Dunn acknowledged that giving teachers responsibility for helping children overcome trauma only adds to an already heavy workload. But, she added, the trauma needs to be dealt with or it can boil over in a variety of ways.
“If we can spend a little bit of time and deal with these issues as they come in,” she said, “and meet these children where they are, then that’s going to be a good investment on the teacher’s part. They’ll be able to do their jobs a little more effectively.
“Hopefully, they won’t have to deal with some of the social or behavioral problems that come up. If we avoid this, then children tend to get that attention one way or the other. We do need to meet this head on.”