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posted: 10/31/2012 5:00 PM

Parents will play key role in helping Naperville classmates cope with grief

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Many young Naperville students may be facing their first encounters with grief following the Tuesday night slayings of two children who attended Brookdale and Scott elementary schools in Naperville.

The victims were a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, authorities said, and both schools launched crisis plans to help other students try to make sense of the tragedy.

A notice on Brookdale's website said the entire Indian Prairie Unit District 204 crisis team was in place Wednesday for both students and staff. Officials said counselors will remain in place "as long as necessary."

The district also offered resources from the National Association of School Psychologists and invited parents to contact the school if they believe their children need extra care.

In a message to students Wednesday, Brookdale Principal Mary Howicz said the district welcomes their questions about the tragedy. Teachers read the message in classrooms.

"If you feel sad or want to talk to an adult who can help you, just let your teacher know," she said during the announcement. "Your teacher can also help you. Like your families, the adults at school will make sure all of you feel safe."

Scott Elementary officials also assembled a crisis plan, bringing in extra counselors from other schools, sending alerts to parents Wednesday morning, as well as two voice mails sent later in the day. Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges said extra counselors will remain available "as long as necessary."

But District 203 officials said they also were focused on keeping Wednesday as normal as possible at Scott Elementary and went forward with a Halloween costume parade at the school.

"It's important to remember they are children," District 203 spokeswoman Susan Rice said. "It's a time of celebration and we didn't want to disrupt that experience for the students. They are having as normal of a school day as possible."

Because the classmates of the victims are so young, primary grief support will come from their parents rather than their peers, said Dr. Janice Kowalski, a child and adolescent physiatrist at Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

"I think the reactions are going to vary by age, but the bottom line is be honest," Kowalski said.

She does not recommend sharing any specific details of the slayings with children, but to be frank about the ideas of life and death. If children learn about the details and come home with questions, Kowalski said, it's OK to confirm whether they are correct.

But ultimately, she said, parents should focus on reassurance in coming weeks.

"Many kids are going to experience a lot of anxiety," Kowalski said. "Kids are going to likely be anxious separating from parents if they have their own baby-sitter."

As a result, it will be important for parents to stress that Tuesday's slayings were an extremely rare tragedy and that they will continue to protect their children from harm.

Parent Marcelle Lathrop of Naperville, who has a first-grader and a second-grader at Brookdale, said she would use those strategies to comfort her children.

"I'm not really sure how I'm going to address that -- just to help them to understand bad things happen sometimes, even to children, and the important thing is they're safe and they can talk to us about it," Lathrop said before picking up her kids from school Wednesday afternoon.

Parents also should be prepared for children needing more reassurance at bedtime, more family time in general, and extra affection, Kowalski said.

Another key point of reassurance is unconditional love.

"Kids need to understand that there is no behavior that can provoke this kind of violence," Kowalski said. "They need to understand this was not the (victims') fault."

Bereavement experts say such tragedies may awaken children's fears that such things could happen in their own families. They say parents should tell their children that they don't know why people do bad things, but that they're doing their best to ensure their family's safety.

Parents should be more diligent over the next several weeks, experts say, and check in with their children more often.

Experts also said parents can help children navigate their emotions by listening and allowing them to talk about details such as what the victims were like, so children feel communication channels are open.

In addition, if parents choose to take their children to the victims' potential memorial service, it's important to teach proper etiquette, experts said.

Youngsters, for example, should be reminded to approach the casket only once to pay their respects instead of repeated visits that may become highly emotional.

Daily Herald staff writer Marie Wilson contributed to this report

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