Guidance for Responding to Student Distress Following a Tragedy or Crisis
When a tragedy happens on campus or off campus and affects our students, knowing how to respond can be challenging, and you may not always feel in your comfort zone. This is completely understandable. Yet your role as an instructor is an important one in the larger system of student support at Tufts. In these moments, you may be the first university employee some students see following an event, or the first person to notice a student’s absence.They will look to you for empathy, reassurance and flexibility as they navigate their academic responsibilities while experiencing a reduced capacity to function due to distress. You are not expected to take on a counseling role, but simply to be caring and sensitive adults who are tuned in and responsive.
Be prepared in advance
To prepare yourself for these inevitable moments, we have developed this resource to support you in responding sensitively in these moments, and to ensure you know what resources are available to you and your students. Read it now, and bookmark it for later to refer to.
Become familiar with Tufts University services and resources for students
There are many people who understand mental health issues and concerns, and who are available for you to look to for advice, and to support our students. You are part of a larger system in place to care for students’ wellbeing. Familiarize yourself with available services for students on your campus, and bookmark them. Bookmark this guide, as well, so that you are able to quickly find it as a resource for framing your response when students are in distress.
Teaching in the Days After
Every day is a “day after” for someone. This resource aims to provide support for a range of types of crises, and hopefully the suggestions for instructor response are widely applicable to many circumstances - the day after an unexpected election result, an insurrection, the day after Russia invades the Ukraine, an earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the day after Ahmaud Arbery (another and another Black person) murdered, the day after violent attacks on the Israeli-Palestinian region…on and on. Our response is important in these moments, fostering community is important, and we might not know as much as we would like about how to handle these moments or what actually transpired.
The importance of faculty response in these moments
On a college campus, the classroom is the only space that is not optional for students, which makes the instructor role complex at times. As student stress, anxiety and depression levels have risen sharply, national and international conflicts and crises are constant and instantly reported, we are called to notice and attend to the myriad ways students respond to their distress. We need to be able to both teach and care for students, and for many instructors this is not a comfortable space. What we now know from neurobiology about emotion and the brain is that this dual role of teaching and caring was always necessary for learning. We are whole humans, and students don’t turn off all emotion when entering the classroom - nor do we instructors.
We are a community of caring when tragedies occur
In her message to the community following a tragedy in the spring of 2022, the Reverend Elyse Nelson Winger, Tufts University Chaplain, eloquently expressed the role of community in these moments:
Grief is a natural and important response to loss, and best held with others. Healing takes a long time, and everyone's path through grief is different. Sudden loss can rupture our sense of stability, and you may feel sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, numbness, distractedness, or loneliness in the coming days and weeks. As a member of our community, we hope that you will also share how you are feeling with people who can support you, for I believe that Valarie Kaur's words ring true: “...grieving loss in community is how the hole turns into a wound that can heal,” (Kaur, V., See No Stranger, p. 33).
At the same time, as Reverend Winger communicated, grief is often dealt with in community. Not all students will necessarily require a therapist. For those who may be experiencing extreme or debilitating grief, talking to a trained professional may be useful, but the range and intensity of emotions that accompany loss should not automatically be seen as needing counseling by professionals. Offering a compassionate response and emotional first aid does not mean you are “being a therapist.” You are simply being a good human, and a part of our community of support in healing.
A planned response is likely a better response
Tragedies are always hard to deal with and while each one is unique, developing a thoughtful and comparable response to all of these moments honors each as equally worthy of grief, each loss as equally important. Consider that students will notice and compare your responses to different events, and developing a measured and somewhat standard response is an inclusive and reassuring approach. This guide is intended to help you to develop a planned response.
Emotional Support is a Caring and Compassionate Response
The goal of emotional support is to give people permission and space to express their emotions. It is the act of freely giving support without becoming invasive. It is being empathic, acknowledging the difficulty, being observant, and providing the opportunity for students to approach you privately to request reasonable flexibility for their academic work if needed.
Don’t fear asking your students how they are doing, rather be prepared. Try to provide time to talk about the incident and the student’s feelings, and listen empathically. (see below for empathic listening cues and what not to say) During the grief process, students may quickly switch emotions. The primary switch of emotions while crying is to anger. It is important to accept the person's feelings of anger. This is a very normal response to distress and holding the space for those emotions and not shutting them down is important.
When an individual student approaches you
Keep your words simple and be brief.
Ask simple questions. “What do you need right now in this class?”
Use simple comments. "This is really hard." "I want you to know that I care, and if there is a way that I can support you, please let me know."
Express appreciation of the student’s willingness to share their thoughts and feelings and remind them about resources on campus. "I want to be sure that you know what support is available to you on campus. I hope that you will take advantage of this support if you do not already have support." (Provide the list on your course site as well as in an email.) Also see on the Active Minds website: V-A-R® (Validate-Appreciate-Refer)
Offer a referral to the Dean of Student Affairs office or to Counseling and Mental Health Services to any student you may be concerned about.
Refer any student who may need support in managing their academic obligations to their Advising or appropriate Dean for advice and support. A student does not necessarily have to be directly impacted to experience trauma or complicated grief.
Contact the Dean of Student Affairs Office and/or Counseling and Mental Health services as needed for additional support and consultation if you have concerns about individual students.They are available to offer guidance to faculty and staff on how to handle complex or challenging situations.
There is no one response that will work for every student because there is no timeline for grief. Some will be affected more than others for many reasons, and grief will present differently for each person. Try to avoid making assumptions about what others may or may not believe, how they may or may not feel, or even about how they may or may not understand what happened. It is important to try to avoid imposing or even just proposing a particular way of viewing, understanding, or experiencing grief.
Many students may hope or expect to talk about what happened in class. For other students, the classroom is the last place they want to talk about what happened, and having to talk about it or listen in multiple classrooms may be overwhelming and painful. Our good intentions in addressing the event may not always have the impact we intend, so approaching this thoughtfully is important.
Pause and acknowledge
Silence on the part of instructors can be read as a lack of compassion at best, and hostility at worst - even if that is not the case. Students need to feel comfortable to express themselves or not, and to be offered space to be heard. That is why it is important for us to pause, and to acknowledge events when they happen, and offer our care and concern.
At a minimum, you can simply say that you are aware of what has happened, and you know that for many students, faculty and staff this is and will be a great loss to process. Relate that you are sorry for their loss and the loss for the whole community.
Offering a brief moment of silence can be a powerful way to both acknowledge what has happened, and allow students a moment to transition into their work in the classroom.
Communicate that there is no “right” way to grieve or mourn. Students from different backgrounds and cultures may respond very differently, and it is good to affirm that.
Share campus support resources on your Canvas site, in an email, and in class.
If possible, offer some flexibility or reprieve
Remember to keep in mind that for many affected students, the days, weeks and even months following may be challenging, and impede students’ ability to do their work.
What each student needs may be different, and hard to predict. For some, sticking with their routine will be helpful, for others, taking time off may be what they need. Some may be able to complete their work in a timely way, others not.
You may consider allowing individual students to leave class if they would prefer to use the time for coping with their own loss or feel unprepared to manage class that day.
You can invite students who have indicated that they are struggling, or you may suspect are having difficulty, to contact you to discuss potential adjustments to course deadlines and to connect them to resources for support.
You may offer extra office hours or an invitation to email or conference with you for students who would like to talk, allowing a more individualized response from you that meets their needs.
Depending on the timing, you might be able to delay an exam or an assignment for all of your students, rather than requiring affected students to do the extra labor of reaching out to you.
Source: "Tips for Educators" Central Michigan University Crisis / Emergency Information for Faculty and George Washington University Counseling Center
Be mindful of how your words might land, well-intentioned though you may be
In attempting to support students or colleagues in distress, our choice of words is important. In an effort to comfort or show empathy, some of our responses may unintentionally trivialize or diminish others’ emotions. In these moments, allowing people the space to feel the way they feel is most helpful. Below are some examples of empathy blockers and facilitators.
Probing and questioning can feel unsupportive or judgemental.
“I wonder whether you are reacting like this because…”
”Why do you think this is so hard for you?”
“How well did you know them?”
“That makes so much sense to me.”
“I can see why this is hard.”
Specific advice in these moments is often unwanted and can shut down further connection. An open, listening stance is most helpful, not offering a solution.
”Why don’t you try doing this?”
“Did you try x?”
“It would be so much easier if you…”
“I understand what you are saying.”
“How can I support you?”
Trying to cheer the person up can downplay their experience or diminish their feelings as valid.
“Look on the bright side”
“It’s not the end of the world”
“You’ll feel better / get past this.”
“That sounds really hard / challenging / painful.”
Feeling sorry for the person doesn’t always offer empathy and can imply a lack of agency.
“Oh, you poor thing.”
“I feel so sorry for you.”
“I can see why that would frustrate / bother you / make you sad.”
“You are so strong.”
Relating your own experience can detract from the person grieving’s experience and whether they feel heard.
“Let me tell you about the same thing that happened to me.”
“Let me tell you about a similar experience I had that was even worse, and how I handled it.”
“This is such a hard thing to go through.”
Assumptions offered about why something might have happened are just that.
“I’m sure they were in a lot of pain and couldn’t see a way out.”
“It is so hard to understand why these things happen.”
Sources: FuelEd Schools 2020
Carefully weigh out whether or how to talk with students in your class
Carefully consider whether or how to hold a discussion with your students - many of us are not skilled enough to take this on, and we do not want to cause additional pain by doing so.
Following are some important considerations and alternatives:
There are events or tragedies that are traumatic for some students and some that impact all students - and we can’t always know who is impacted. Consider this in your classroom response, and be careful in assuming you know who is or is not suffering and whether a classroom discussion with the whole class is appropriate or helpful to all of your students.
Before making this choice, reflect on the size of your class, your relationship with your students, the climate, and your personal capacity and skill to hold space in this way. You cannot predict how the conversation will go, and you will need the skill to manage it well.
Students should have the opportunity to decline your invitation, remain silent, or leave if they prefer not to join the dialogue. They may need a break from talking about it, may have had conversations in other classes, or not feel comfortable expressing their emotions for a variety of reasons, and imposing this on all or some students may be counterproductive.
A period of silence, even for an extended period of time, can also be a form of dialogue and grieving in community rather than a conversation.
The discussion can be brief if you choose to have one in class. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of the class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. You can even consider announcing ahead of time, if appropriate to the circumstance, that time will be made available at the next class for discussion or in office hours so students can plan ahead.
You could offer time outside of class for those who would like to share space with each other and you.
Some tips and considerations during the conversation:
There is no right way to react, and no set timeline. If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it may be important to point out that we all cope with stress and trauma in different ways and we need to be respectful of that.
Acknowledge what people share, but don’t feel the need to respond verbally to every comment.
Minimize discussion of what people believe to be “facts,” instead focusing on the difficulty of the event, and students’ emotional responses. Students may ask questions about what actually happened or want to debate certain details. Acknowledge that ‘facts' have possibly not been shared or fully captured yet, and that misinformation and speculation can be damaging. For now, you would like to focus the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.
It is normal for people to seek an explanation for why the tragedy occurred. Through understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be avoided or prevented in the future. We might comment, “As human beings it is in our nature to seek a deeper understanding of traumatic events. It is a challenge to understand an unthinkable event. By their very nature, tragedies are especially difficult to explain.”
Be prepared for blaming. When we are upset and confused, we often look for someone or something to blame - this is a normal part of the process. Essentially, this is a displacement of the strong emotion we are feeling. Attributing blame is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things right.
Remind students that we don't we don’t always know why people make the choices that they do, or why things happen. It's understandable to want to blame, but not everything can be averted and that is one of the difficulties of being human - accepting that you can't fix or avoid every bad or difficult situation.
Remind students that uncertainty is particularly distressing, but not always in our control. As faculty and staff we should resist the temptation to make meaning of the event. This is often not helpful as it interferes with a person’s natural process to derive their own meaning which is filtered through their own life experiences as well as their culture, gender and belief systems.
Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of the support services available to them as noted above.
Return the class to the normal routine as soon as appropriate.