In this day and age, it’s inevitable that children hear about acts of violence in schools, whether directly through active shooter education and training, or indirectly through media and social interaction. Initially scared and confused, they will look to adults like parents and school personnel for guidance on how to react.
School shootings are staggering events which surpass both logic and empathy, and discussing them with children can be a daunting task - especially when we as adults have trouble wrapping our heads around it. So, how do you talk about violence in school when you don’t have the answer to the big why question?
Well, for one, it’s important to understand that it’s okay not to have all the answers. Acts of senseless violence are just that: senseless. More important than answers is a sense of normalcy and security for children when talking to them about their fears.
Where Do I Start?
Reassure them that schools are safe places with lots of people working very hard to keep them that way. Review specific school safety procedures with them.
Validate their feelings. Let them know that all feelings are okay when something terrible happens. Allow them to express how they are feeling, whether verbally or through other activities such as music, art, or writing.
Help put their feelings in perspective, and let their questions guide your explanation and determine how much information you offer.
Children of different ages will receive and process information about violence differently. Make sure your conversations with them are developmentally appropriate.
Early elementary school children need information that is brief, simple, and punctuated with assurances that they are safe and protected at school and at home. Give examples of school safety by reminding them about procedures and measures like locking exterior doors and safety drills during the school day. Remind them that there are adults at school and at home that work hard to protect them.
Upper elementary and early middle school children are more vocal about their concerns and will ask questions regarding their safety and what is being done to protect them at school. They may need help putting their fears in perspective and determining reality from fantasy, often as a result of the portrayal of danger in media.
Late middle schoolers and high schoolers will have strong opinions about violence and the causes and effects. They will likely be able to provide concrete suggestions about how to improve school safety. Emphasize their role in their safety and the safety of their peers, and the importance of following safety guidelines to ensure security at school. They can also play a part in communicating potential threats to school personnel and responsibly access emotional support. Give them opportunities to be part of the solution.
Potential Talking Points
“Schools are safe places. There are lots of people working to make sure they stay that way. School staff works directly with public safety providers like policemen, firefighters, and first responders to protect you and keep you safe.”
“Let’s pick out an adult you trust at school that you can talk to if you feel nervous, scared, or unsafe. Be aware of your surroundings, and remember that you can always speak up if you feel like something isn’t right.”
“Sometimes people do bad things that hurt other people. They are often angry and using drugs and alcohol. Adults (like teachers, police officers, faith leaders, and doctors) try hard to get these people the help that they need so that they do not hurt others. It is important to stay away from drugs and alcohol, even if you are angry or hurt.”
“Stay away from guns and other weapons that can hurt people. If you ever see someone with a gun, a knife, or something else that can harm someone, tell an adult immediately, no matter what.”
While you cannot guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen, it is important that children understand the difference between the possibility and the probability of a tragic event. Just because it might happen does not mean it is likely to happen. Rather than live in fear, establish and maintain a normal routine, encourage the child to review safety procedures, and reassure them that they are in a secure place where people care about their safety.
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