TORONTO – When Marcia Powers-Dunlop heard about the deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec City, she knew she’d have to send out a note to the support workers she oversees in the Toronto District School Board. The message: use the killings as an opportunity to discuss inclusion and equity.
The board sent a similar message to teachers and parents in the aftermath of the shooting Sunday night that left six Muslim worshippers dead and 19 wounded.
WATCH: Memorial grows for Quebec City mosque attack victims
Her team of nearly 750 professionals that include psychologists and social workers were ready to help, but she knew that the best people to talk about the attack were those who know the students best: their teachers.
“We decided we had to talk about it,” Powers-Dunlop said. “Most importantly, we want teachers to listen and to assure the kids that they’re safe and that people care about them at school and if they have specific worries that they have somebody they could go to talk about their fears.”
That message was echoed in an email sent to parents by the board: “We have asked all TDSB staff to lead by example with love, compassion and respect and to continue drawing on and promoting this incredible strength in our schools and within our communities. We believe there is a need to bring the events in Quebec City into the conversation as we all – schools and the community – reflect and act on shaping a better tomorrow.”
Fortunately, or in some ways unfortunately, Powers-Dunlop said, teachers are getting good at talking to students about terrible news.
“After a while, you see the same key message: listen, be empathetic, show sympathy, use it as a teachable moment, limit exposure to media if people are really upset and use it to teach about inclusivity and respect for different people.”
Oren Amitay, a family psychologist, said the worst thing parents and teachers can do is avoid discussing tragedies.
“From around seven years old, there’s a good chance the child will be hearing something about this,” Amitay said.
“What parents and teachers have to realize when a child has an inkling of something, they can spin it into some narrative a parent would never expect. Because they’re kids, the narrative is usually self focused – I’m next to die.”
Amitay suggests teaching children and teens “to focus on the here and now.”
If your children are worried about anti-Muslim rhetoric, and there’s a Muslim kid in their school, tell them ‘don’t be a social justice warrior, just be cool with them,’ Amitay suggested.
“Tell them to act a certain way, like they would with their friends.”
Judy Wiener, a clinical psychologist and a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said teachers and parents have a responsibility to talk to children about the issues of race, bigotry and intolerance.
“This attack can be used in a positive way to expand horizons and help kids understand, but at the same time also acknowledging that this is really serious and distressing,” Wiener said.
“I’m really worried about the student, parent or teacher who won’t talk about this. Of course it’s difficult, but they ought to be aware of this and grappling with it.”