Dealing With The Aftermath Of Tragedy In The Classroom

Returning to the Classroom After a Tragedy 

A 7-step Approach to Starting Class Again 

This week, faculty, instructors, and graduate assistants will be returning to their classes for the first time after the tragic events of this week.  There will be some classes where they have lost one of their classmates, which may add to the intensity of the experience of both students and instructors.  Below are recommendations for how to structure the return to class for your students and yourselves, with trauma-informed considerations and practices. 

1. Before your first class back, prepare and distribute a brief email indicating how you plan to run class on Monday/this coming week.  This will give students a clear understanding of what to expect. Consider including:

  • An acknowledgement of the tragic events
  • Review of available resources (CAPS, Student Health Promotion, Thriving Campus, etc) 
  • Review of syllabus and plan moving forward 
  • Emphasis on flexibility and choice.  Inform them of the intention to return to the classroom, and that the students have the option of coming to the initial class.  Provide information about any other flexibility that you are going to offer (eg., will students have the opportunity to attend class remotely if they choose?) 
  • Move to continuing instructional content 

2. At the start of your first class back, begin by thanking students for coming to the classroom space as they are. 
  • Approach the beginning of class with grace, humanity, and humility. 
  • “Thank you all for being here today. I imagine it may be hard for some of you to be here right now, whether that’s in person or on Zoom. I know it is hard for me as well. Today, we’re going to do the best we can, even if that’s messy.” 
3. Acknowledge the tragedy in plain, direct terms.   
  • Example of what to say for classes where a student has died: “Today, we’re back in class after the tragic and horrible events of last week. I want to just take a moment and acknowledge the loss of your fellow classmate, [the student’s name]. This loss will be with us in this class, and on campus, for the rest of this semester.  I just want to recognize that, and that many of us may be having a range of feelings about that.” 
4. Acknowledge and validate that there are various reactions to trauma, and they have different trajectories over time for different people. 
  • There is a wide range of reactions that people have to traumatic events, from anxious rumination to focused attention on studies to humor to shutting down.   
  • By naming this in class, you let your students know that you are aware that whatever they are dealing with is ok. 
  • Let people know that no matter what reactions they are having, that if they need someone to talk with about this to please reach out to someone to get help. 

5. Provide information and links to MSU resources, and SAMHSA, APA, and NCTSN trauma information  6. Do not invite your students to have a discussion about their trauma reactions if you do not have trauma-informed training or do not feel prepared to do so for any reason (e.g., size of the class).   
Instead, consider the following: 
  • Invite/ask permission to shift to the educational/discovery content planned for the day 
    • “Now that we are all here in this learning space together, if you are ready, we will shift to the learning content for the day.”

  • Acknowledge how strange or difficult this sounds right now, while also giving permission for people to not be as focused or able to really learn right now as they might typically be able to be. 
    • “It might be hard to learn right now because of distraction by stress or other trauma-related symptoms, and that’s OK.” 

  • Let students know that they can feel free to take a break if they want to or leave at any time

7. Demonstrate grace, humanity, humility, and flexibility with class attendance, coursework, and so on, in line with university guidance.  Again, try to recognize that everyone is trying to cope right now, and that some students won’t be at their best for some time.   


We know that humans experience a variety of emotions following such a traumatic event. These feelings can include shock, sorrow, numbness, fear, anger, disillusionment, grief, and others. You may find that you have trouble sleeping, concentrating, eating, or remembering even simple tasks. This is common. 

There are several ways that students — and everyone — can take care of themselves that help to facilitate healing.  This is called natural recovery.  The following factors are thought to contribute to natural recovery: 

  • Social support, including: 
    • Believing that other people care about you and will be there if you need them 
    • Being able to talk about the trauma and your reactions to it with supportive people 
    • Having supporters who avoid reacting in unhelpful ways when told about the trauma 
  • Getting back to one’s life, including: 
    • Returning to your routine, such as going to work or school, doing chores and maintaining a sleep schedule 
    • Not avoiding reminders of the trauma 
    • Staying connected to friends and other important people 
  • Making meaning of what happened, including: 
    • Finding helpful and realistic ways to fit the trauma into the way you think about yourself, other people, and the world 
    • Noticing unhelpful thoughts that get in the way of making meaning, such as self-blame, and finding more helpful thoughts 
    • Looking for examples of ways that you did your best or coped well