Crises and tragedies, whether local, national or international, affect us and our students. When they occur, it can be challenging to figure out how to respond and whether or not we should address the event in our classroom. As educators, we are important figures in our students’ lives. And because we see them with regularity, it’s quite possible that we might be a first point of contact after a tragic event. It’s beneficial to spend some time thinking about how we might respond in a way that feels authentic and within our own comfort zone. 

Unfortunately, these events are inevitable. How do we determine if something is a crisis or tragedy? Some things to consider include (Huston & DiPietro, 2007):

  • Proximity (local campus or community events)
  • Large magnitude and scale (national events with wide media coverage)
  • Does the event impact students’ families or social networks?
  • Do students identify with the victim(s)?
  • Other situations cues: are students mobilizing on campus, are faculty themselves struggling?

Huston and DiPietro’s (2007) study of students’ reactions to faculty responses after the 9/11 terrorist attack tells us that it’s important that we do something in the face of tragedy; and this something does not have to (though it can) be a big, elaborate gesture. In many cases, even a minimal effort response was received positively by students.

Often, faculty don’t respond because they are uncomfortable or uncertain about how to do so (DiPietro, 2003). Taking some time to think about potential responses will better equip us to be present for our students when they need it the most. This resource is intended to provide some ideas and additional resources so that you can be better prepared in the face of the next crisis event that occurs.


Every day is a “day after” for someone (Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Tufts University, n.d.). Simply acknowledging the event and checking in is appreciated by students. Some ideas include:

  • Communicate awareness of the event and empathy for those involved (in-class or through an email)
  • Make time for a moment of silence
  • Have students journal or write what they are feeling in the moment
  • Ask your students how they are doing. Consider showing vulnerability and sharing your own feelings. Show appreciation for their willingness to share and process with the group.
  • Read an inspirational poem or passage from a book


  • In past times of crises, students have appreciated being offered ideas for how they can help (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). For example, donating blood during local disasters, attending vigils, etc. 
  • Understand that you do not need to shoulder the burden alone. There are a  number of resources available to students. Become familiar with them and encourage those who are struggling to use them. That list might include:
  • Ask students if their families and friends were physically affected (Tip: I curate a list of my students’ hometowns that I can quickly take a look at if a major event occurs. If students are from the affected area, I reach out individually to check on them).
  • Offer extra office hours or to talk privately with students who need extra support
  • Check back in with students a few weeks after the event (especially those who were directly impacted or indicated they were struggling).

Class Discussion

If you are comfortable, consider having a discussion about the event in class. While students often appreciate the opportunity to discuss the event, this strategy should not be implemented without great care and planning. Consider the following questions before embarking a class discussion (Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Syracuse University, n.d.): 

  • How will you structure the discussion, such that you are able to open, hold and properly close it without running out of time? 
  • How will you respond to any inaccurate statements, biased comments, generalizations, or stereotypes about different groups?
  • What will you do and how might you re-engage a student who walks out or stops participating during a heated exchange?

These resources contain advice for planning and facilitating this discussion.

Recognize the Cognitive Toll These Events Can Take on Students and Adjust Accordingly

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an event or circumstance resulting in physical, emotional, or life-threatening harm. Our inclination as educators during difficult times might be to provide some sense or normalcy or routine by sticking with our regularly scheduled plan. But doing so fails to recognize that these events can impact students’ mental, physical, emotional, social, and/or spiritual health. It’s important to understand and recognize that even if students have not directly experienced the tragedy, it can have strong emotional and cognitive impact (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). 

Students may be finding it difficult to concentrate during times of tragedy and appreciate when faculty accommodate for this (DiPietro, 2003; Huston & DiPietro, 2007). If you think this may be the case for your students here are some options:

  • Consider offering extensions or inviting students who are struggling to reach out to you to discuss options (don’t make assumptions about who might or might not be struggling).
  • If the event is local or impacting a large number of students, consider delaying deadlines for everyone upcoming assignments or assessments.
  • Offer to review the material at a later date when everyone is not feeling so stressed.

This resource from Tufts University is especially helpful in thinking about how to have a humane and empathetic response to students’ grief and emotions during times of tragedy.

Incorporate the Event into the Curriculum

A final option is to consider how you might incorporate the event into your curriculum. 

  • Is there a way to relate the event to specific topics in your class?
  • You might develop a class project around the event.


Regardless of your response, it’s important to remember that tragic events can take a heavy toll on students. Take some time to acknowledge the event and consider how you might accommodate students who are struggling. Above-all, give yourself time to reflect on your own feelings and respond in a way that feels authentic and true to who you are. 

Resources for Specific Events


Center for Teaching Excellence, Syracuse University (2023). Teaching in the Face of Tragedy and Conflict. Retrieved October 27, 2023 from:

Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Tufts University (n.d.). Guidance for Responding to Student Distress Following a Tragedy or Crisis. Retrieved October 27, 2023 from:

DiPietro, M. (2003). The Day After: Faculty Behavior in Post-September 11, 2001, Classes. To Improve the Academy, 21, 21-39. Retrieved October 27, 2023 from:

Huston, T. A., and DiPietro, M (2007). In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25, 207–224. Retrieved October 27, 2023 from: