Most important lesson for teachers, parents is stability.
As word spread Friday of the loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in-school crisis and mental health professionals were drafting letters home and mobilizing teams to attend to distressed students.
But the key -- in the classrooms and at home -- is normalcy, said Walter Roberts, professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
"The most important thing in the midst of chaos is stability, especially for children," he said. "Stability sends the message that children are safe; it sends a message that children can depend upon adults; and it also sends the message that although something terrible has happened somewhere else, it's not necessarily going to happen where they live."
Another crucial message educators stress is that students are not in danger. "It's like a broken record: you're safe at school today," said Susan Arvidson, lead elementary counselor for St. Paul Public Schools.
Many school districts have policies and procedures to guide responses to crises, and though those are helpful, flexibility is key. "No matter what we practice, something is going to be different," said Karen Schaub, spokeswoman for Roseville Area Schools.
She and others noted that a school's response needs to be tailored to children's ages and their own life stories.
For some children, the tragedy will seem far away. For others, it could trigger distress from their own experiences, such as abuse or homelessness, said Barry Scanlan, prevention coordinator in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. "They might feel it closer because they've experienced trauma."
Though it can be important to shield younger children from prolonged exposure to news reports and intense images, both at home and at school, it's important to help them sort through their own questions and emotions.
"If kids have questions, answer them, talk about it and let them know they're safe and it's a terrible, sad thing," Scanlan said. "Ignoring it and pretending it doesn't affect students is not the right message."
Parents should let kids' questions guide how much information they give, and be aware of their own emotions, said psychologist Andrea Anderson at the Minnesota Center of Psychology in St. Paul. "It's a very troubling event, but it's also extremely rare," she said. "If parents are having a strong emotional reaction to this, they might want to deal with that first before talking with their kids."
Parents can think of themselves as partners with schools, Arvidson said. If kids have problems sleeping, eating or spend a lot of time crying or clinging to loved ones, it's important to let the school know.
"Sometimes parents don't want to make a big deal, but I think it's important to keep that open line of communication, even if you think it's a small thing," she said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409 Warren Wolfe contributed to this report.