Learn 8 ways to guide your conversations with children when discussing high-profile acts of violence in schools.
All too often, school violence in the U.S. is ubiquitously broadcasted on TV and online media in the United States, leaving children who watch frightened and confused. These high profile acts may force children to question whether themselves or their friends are in fact safe. Questions may run through their head, such as “Who will protect us?” or “Why would someone do such a thing?”
This is where adults—parents, loved ones, and teachers alike—can provide information, guidance, and empathy. Rather than hide from or dismiss the high-profile stories, it is best to confront them head on. Discuss these events with children, establish a sense of security and stability by allaying their fears.
Our school violence handbook is designed to be a resource for administrators, faculty, and parents to turn to after times of crisis. We believe the educational experience prioritizes not just intellectual growth, but emotional health. Distribute and use this Public School Review handbook as a guide for moments when needed most.
8 Ways to Guide Your Conversation
1. First and foremost—reassure the child that they are safe. Schools are overwhelmingly safe overall despite the high-profile acts that occur every year. They can rest easy knowing themselves and their loved ones will be okay.
2. Let them know you understand what they’re feeling. Validate those feelings and let them know that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let them talk through their issues and put it into perspective. Simply expressing their (potentially bottled up) emotions can be therapeutic.
3. Listen. Truly give the child your ear—listen to their questions. Devote the time to understand and hear them out. Let their questions guide the details of the conversation
4. Understand your audience. Make sure your explanation of the events is appropriate to the child’s age and development level.
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information along with assurances of safety at home and at school They need to understand that older adult figures are there to protect them. Citing examples of safety (such as locked building doors, security efforts, etc.) helps even more.
- Upper elementary and middle school children can use the same assurances, but will are old enough to want to know greater detail about the measures. Just how much goes into the security checks? How are visitors checked before entering a building? They may also be able to discuss the direct causes (i.e. how did an offender get their hands on a weapon?), and how they are being prevented.
- Older middle school and high school students will need the same level of detail, but may also be ready for deeper discussions on not just the direct causes, but the root causes of violence. They will be ready to discuss the macro causes and even share suggestions for how to make schools and society safer.
5. Let them understand how they can help. Emphasize that even they can make a difference, by helping to maintain safety in schools. This may include following safety guidelines, like not giving building access to strangers, or reporting suspicious activity. Review safety procedures and remind the child exactly how the procedures and safeguards work at school.
6. Pay heed to their emotional state. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
7. Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.
Suggested Points to Emphasize When Talking to Children*
- Schools are safe places. School staff work with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.
- The school building is safe because … (cite specific school procedures).
- We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
- There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
- Don’t dwell on the worst possibilities. Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and the probability that it will affect our school.
- Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep us from worrying about the event.
- Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
- Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
- Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.
*Information sourced from National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Photo Credit: LeafLanguages, flickr