The eighth-grade class trip, the big unwind before starting high school, turned into a nightmare of crashing metal and battered bodies for students at C.W. Henry School as their Washington-bound bus crashed Monday morning in Maryland. In all, 29 people were injured, including a teacher and a student who received the most severe physical injuries.
Philadelphia School District spokesman Kevin Geary said counseling staff had been tending to the emotional needs of students at the Mount Airy school, whether or not they were on the trip, and will remain there all week. On Wednesday, there was a breakfast at the school for eighth graders to talk about their feelings.
“I want to thank everyone who has stepped up in this time of need to support our students, staff and our entire school community,” principal Fatima Rodgers said. That support, she added, has “made a tremendous difference.”
What should adults say and do to help youngsters cope with this kind of trauma?
Local experts say the same rules for being a supportive adult at any time hold true during stressful events: Without being intrusive, listen to your children and encourage them to talk; pay attention to behavioral changes such as sleep and eating habits; and try to help youngsters get back to normal life as soon as possible.
“Don’t ask them about the event, but instead, how they are feeling,” said Steven Berkowitz, director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery.
Many people, including children, isolate themselves after a trauma, Berkowitz said. “A certain amount is understandable, but do not let them be alone more than prior to the crash.”
However, he said, do it gently. “Parental emotional support is one of the most protective factors. Do not be intrusive, but ask how they’re doing.”
Certain symptoms are common after a trauma, especially one as major as the Henry school bus crash.
Nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep, difficulty concentrating in school, being fearful or agitated, or reverting to younger behavior are usual responses, especially shortly after an incident.
“The most important thing is to be available for the kids to process their own level of fear,” said Tammi Grovatt-Dawkins, a professional counselor in Haddonfield. Sometimes, that means letting children know what they are going through is normal. For example, Grovatt-Dawkins said, you might explain to a child, “If you’re having nightmares, it’s your brain trying to make sense of something upsetting.”
Tamar Chansky, a local psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, advised getting to back to normal routines as soon as possible. Another good idea is encouraging children to reach out to others in need, Chansky said: write get-well notes to those still recuperating, help make food to bring to their homes, or send them a funny meme or video.
“The child will feel like he or she is participating in making things better,” Chansky said.
George James, a marriage and family therapist with the Council for Relationships and Thomas Jefferson University, said it’s important to remember that children can be quite resilient.
“There are some shining moments or silver linings – people who become friends because of this” kind of adversity, James said.
He suggested encouraging children to call on ways of coping they are already familiar with – going to yoga with a parent, playing sports with a friend, or prayer.
For some children and adults, however, the reactions to the trauma may persist.
According to After the Injury, a website of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, about one in six children and their parents will still have significant traumatic stress reactions six months after the incident. Those can include reliving the experience, avoiding any reminders, or feeling anxious or jumpy – all of which can interfere with daily life.
Some of the people most susceptible to prolonged stress are those who have experienced or witnessed previous traumas. Professional help may be needed for individuals with continuing reactions.
The accident brought back painful memories for some area residents who have been through similar traumas.
“My heart goes out to those students and families,” said Michael Mazzoni, principal of Chesterfield Elementary School in Burlington County. He was an assistant principal at the South Jersey school in February 2012, when a school bus carrying 25 students collided with a dump truck. Isabelle Tezsla, an 11-year-old triplet, was killed and several children were injured.
County crisis counselors were made available for weeks after, including at key events during the school year. “There was always that empty seat,” Mazzoni said of Isabelle’s absence.
Many children bounced back, but some children continued to be affected. One child, he said, was terrified of loud noises, even lawn mowers. Some others would not let their parents drive them where the accident occurred.
“It’s these things that the school is going to have to tease out,” Mazzoni said of Henry.
Chesterfield had a recovery program that included helping students gradually get used to being back on a school bus.
“It’s going to take time,” he said.