October 20, 2017

Teaching in Times of Tragedy

As teachers, we’ve all dealt with days that are particularly tough in the classroom. Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly faced with teaching in the days and weeks that follow a local or a collective tragedy. For nearly two weeks, Northern California has been ravaged by devastating wildfires — the deadliest in California history. For many at Teaching Channel, the Bay Area is home, and we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can help our friends and neighbors. From making a donation to volunteering your time, if you’re looking for a way to help, you can find a number of great ideas here and here.

Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have a significant impact on our students and our classrooms. While the impact is more obvious when students are in direct proximity to the event or personally involved, large-scale national crises, often accompanied by heavy media coverage, can be equally difficult to navigate. The resulting stress and anxiety students — and teachers — bring into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect teaching and learning.

What Can Teachers Do To Support Their Students?

There is no lesson plan for tragedy. But as educators, the health and well-being of our students are always paramount. First, as you look for ways to support your students, check with your administrator to find out if your school district has a policy in place for guiding students through a crisis. If your school or district doesn’t have an expressed policy, encourage your principal to begin a discussion about what supports are available and what interventions — academic or otherwise — will best meet the needs of your unique population.

Whether you’ll be building your plan as a team or individually, keep these tips for teaching in times of tragedy in mind.

Acknowledge the Tragedy, But Stick to the Routine

Simply recognizing what happened can be valuable and reassuring for your students; the way in which you respond will be personal and individual to you and to your class. As you plan for the days ahead, remember that school and classroom routines provide a sense of comfort and stability for students who may feel like the events of their lives are otherwise out of control.

Here are ten ways you can help your students feel safe, secure, and supported during and in the aftermath of a traumatic event:

1. Seek information about how many of your students have been personally impacted by the event and to what degree.

2. Observe a moment of silence.

3. Allow students time to reflect privately in writing or express their emotions through art.

Writing Video Screenshot

VIDEO: Writing to Learn

  1. Allow for class time for a structured or unstructured class discussion of the event without explicitly linking to class content.
Kid Speaking

VIDEO: Respectful Talk

5. Be prepared for “hot moments” or conflicts in the classroom when discussing sensitive topics.

6. Create a safe, inclusive space where diversity of opinions and student backgrounds are recognized and honored.

7. Allow students to express emotions and ask questions.

8. Develop class assignments related to the event or shift your plans to introduce a relevant topic now that was scheduled for a later date.

9. Use the lens of your discipline to examine the events surrounding the tragedy.

10. Brainstorm with students about how they might respond positively or develop agency through volunteerism or other meaningful social action.

Offer Support to Mitigate Student Stress and Anxiety

  • Mind the Cognitive Load: Consider deadline extensions, reducing student workload, providing additional time for review, and offering supplemental resources to support student learning.
  • Encourage Students to Take a News Break: Students and teachers can get caught up watching an endless loop of media footage from the disaster if they stay tuned in to news broadcasts and social media timelines. Although everyone will want to stay informed, periodically unplugging can lessen stress and anxiety as a tragedy unfolds and in the aftermath.
  • Look for Students in Crisis: Talk with struggling students individually and connect with guidance counselors, administrators, and families when necessary.
  • Be Resourceful: Help students and families access resources and additional support services provided by the school or in the community.

Finding Peace in the Aftermath

As with any traumatic event, there will be difficult days ahead for students and teachers impacted by the Northern California wildfires.

Practicing mindfulness in your classroom can help you and your students connect with positive emotions and social experiences — something that a brain changed by trauma sometimes struggles to do. Mindfulness-based strategies such as deep breathing and guided relaxation will help to slow down the amygdala, the fear center of the brain that is often hyperactive following a traumatic event, and help everyone regulate behaviors, emotions, and impulses as they recover, rebuild, and find peace.

kid screenshot

VIDEO: Mindfulness in the Classroom

Take Care of Yourself

When your students are hurting, it will take an emotional and physical toll on you as well. You’ll need to find strategies to cope with any vicarious trauma as best you can so that you can better support your students in a time of crisis. Focus on a long-term, on-going strategy for teacher wellness and self-care. For some great ideas on where to start with teacher wellness and self-care, check out the self-care suggestions in our Back-to-School Starter Packs and take a look back at Tch Laureate Crystal Morey’s #TchWellness journey.

Your students take cues from your words and actions, so not only will you be stronger when they need you, you’ll also be a great model as they figure out which coping strategies work best for them!

Additional Resources

What ideas do you have for teaching in times of trauma? What’s worked in your classroom? 


Search the K12 Hub

More From Teaching Channel

Brunette teacher with face in hands sitting at desk
10 Tips to Reduce Overthinking

Teaching is a rewarding profession that allows educators to shape the minds of the next generation. However, it can be a challenging job that requires

Recommended Courses

Refocus & Recharge: Strategies for Finding Balance in Teaching

Educator Wellness




Flex Credit


3 Credits


Goodbye Teacher Burnout, Welcome Teacher Wellness

Educator Wellness



PK - 12+

Flex Credit


3 Credits


Living Your Happiest Life, Inside & Outside the Classroom

Educator Wellness



PK - 12+

Flex Credit


3 Credits


Want to partner with us?

We’re always looking for new authors! If you’re interested in writing an article, please get in touch with us.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Get notified of new content added to K12 Hub.

Great News! Learners Edge, Insight ADVANCE and Teaching Channel are now under one umbrella. Learn More

Welcome to the Education Evolution

Learners Edge and Insight Advance have merged with Teaching Channel to become your single source for graduate-level courses, professional development, video coaching, plus lots of free resources—all in one place.

Teaching Channel logo