Mental health professionals share how to help children cope as Waukesha students return to class after parade tragedy

NOW: Mental health professionals share how to help children cope as Waukesha students return to class after parade tragedy

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Students in the Waukesha School District returned to classes on Monday, Nov. 29 for the first time since an SUV plowed through the Waukesha Holiday Parade killing six people and injuring more than 60 others, many of them students.

Superintendent of schools for the School District of Waukesha , Dr. James Sebert, and deputy superintendent, Dr. Joseph Koch, addressed the first day back on Facebook and in a press conference.

Dozens of mental health professionals are now focusing their attention on how to help those students heal. Both the school district and clinicians acknowledge it could be a long road for many of them because some returned to class with physical injuries like broken bones, while others are still trying to process what happened last Sunday, and why.

School administrators said Monday morning began with a "soft start" to ease students back into the school schedule. Staff read a universal message to students to let them know the support available to them as they heal from the tragedy. On Monday and Tuesday there are approximately 75 counselors, social workers and psychologists in the district -- that includes Waukesha staff and other staff from neighboring districts. According to Sebert and Koch, students have utilized supportive centers in and around the schools.

Dr. Chad Wetterneck, the clinical director of trauma recovery services at Rogers Behavioral Health, said, "The purpose of the conversation should be that you're going to assure them that normally things are ok, and for the most part they're not in danger like this."

He says adults should make the time to have a serious conversation, to ask children what they know about what happened, tell the truth about what they know and to not dismiss what they don't know.

He also says since some children don't always have the words to describe how they're feeling, it's important to validate their emotions. "It's probably more helpful that you say 'most people in these situations would have felt scared, they might feel bad that something happened to other people and not to them, they might feel helpless, they might be angry.'"

Dr. Koch said, "Things will strike a memory, things will trigger a feeling, and we're going to want to make sure we're there to support kids through the remainder of the school year."

He said the emotional needs varied by age and development, for example many of the youngest students asked if the people affected would be ok. "The middle level kids have a little deeper understanding, a little more connection to what happened. We're seeing a little more peer-to-peer concern in how to process it. And in the high school it's kind of been all over the board."

Watch the Waukesha School District news conference below:

Dr. Wetterneck says a goal should be to assure children what happened does not happen often and that it is ok to think and talk about it. And he says even if you have a conversation in the first week or so, plan on having more conversations in the future. "Kids are really observant, so even if you don't ask them about their feelings, they're going to see whether or not you feel a certain way about this. And that's going to be one of their models for how they process this or don't process this."

A lot of the strategies focus on how to support others, but Dr. Wetterneck says people should also focus on self-care, like exercise, taking breaks from the updates and looking for a specialist if necessary.

"The School District of Waukesha has benefited from an outpouring of support from many communities," the letter said. "Our district leadership team will be monitoring the status of need by school and will reassess the need daily to ensure enough support is in place to get us through the days and weeks ahead. If you have any questions or have specific concerns about how your child is doing, please reach out to your school principal, your child’s teacher or the student services staff from your child’s school." 

School officials will continue to monitor the need and deploy support staff for the remainder of the week as necessary. 

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