Teachers struggle to explain sinking to kids

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Teachers struggle to explain sinking to kids

On April 17, a day after the Sewol ferry turned upside-down with hundreds of passengers, mostly high school students, stuck inside, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul, was peppered with difficult questions from his students.

“Mr. Kim, what is going to happen to the students trapped in the ship?” asked a student. Another asked, “Is it true that the captain abandoned the ship? Why did he do that?”

Some answers were completely unknown. Some were almost unspeakable. All he could say was, “Everything is going to be all right” to his shaken students - even though he knew that wasn’t the case at all.

“The students were shocked by the accident, and I still don’t know how to soothe them,” he says today.

Schools all across the country have been gloomy places since the Sewol tragedy played out in real time for the past 10 days. Some students are experiencing insomnia or anxiety disorders, fearing a similar tragedy could befall them.

“Right after the accident, students talked about their hopes,” said a teacher at a high school in Daejeon, “but the atmosphere got only heavier as the death toll rose. They have become a lot quieter these days.”

“Students are particularly sensitive to the news, maybe because they are in puberty,” a middle school teacher in Seoul said. “They tend to get angry or depressed when talking about the Sewol ferry.”

Some schools are sending messages to parents to tell them to keep their school-aged children away from the news about the ferry accident.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union came up with a mental stability program with psychiatrists to help students and teachers. In the program, counsellors encourage students to share their opinions on the accident and console each other.

Educational authorities said they would support the program.

“We will dispatch teams of professional counsellors and psychiatrists to support mental treatment for students,” said Lee Jun-sun, director of education policy at the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

The Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also released guidelines for parents of school-aged children that encourages them to have honest talks about the tragedy - without dwelling on uncertain issues or rumors.

“It is time [for parents] to make students less exposed to newspapers, broadcast media and the Internet and put some distance between their children and the tragic news,” said Ahn Hyun-nie, a professor of psychology at Ewha Womans University. “But students may develop very negative feelings about the accident if they only talk to their peers, so parents and teachers should have frank conversation with them.”

Some medical professionals suggest talking about the tragedy and trying to put a positive message forward. “Parents should allow their kids to express their ideas rather than saying, ‘It was just a bad accident,’ or, ‘Kids don’t need to know about it,’” said Lee Hyang-suk, head of the Korea Child Adolescent Psychology Counseling Center. “Instead of just saying, ‘Adults were responsible,’ try to convey a positive messages such as, ‘It will be different when you grow up,’ or, ‘You can be a better adult.’”

The students who need counseling most are at Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi, which lost hundreds of 11th-grade students. For the first time since the April 16 accident, 12th-grade students went to school on Thursday. Doctors and counselors visited the school to offer counselling.

Tenth-grade students and 11th-graders who didn’t go on the tragic school trip to Jeju return to school on Monday.

BY JANG JOO-YOUNG AND LIM MYOUNG-SOO [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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