Information shared with your child should be based on their need, developmental age, and how closely related they are to the crisis event. The goal is to reassure your child that although there is always a possibility of violence occurring in a school, the probability of a school experiencing a high profile violent act is extremely low. The following are some suggested general key points that you can consider when talking to your child about school violence.
Helpful Guidelines to Keep in Mind
1. Any conversation with a student must be developmentally appropriate.
- Young children need brief simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. They are not able to process the complexities of violence in the same way that adolescents and young adults are prepared to discuss the issue. Young children often gauge how threatening or serious an event is by adult reactions. Listen for misinformation or misconceptions and share facts as developmentally appropriate. They respond well to basic assurances by adults and simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
- Upper middle school and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about causes of violence in schools and society. They may share concrete suggestions about how to make the school safer and how to prevent such tragedies. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
2. Keep communication open between schools and parents. Keep informed about how your school is responding to your child’s questions and any type of support that has been made available for students struggling with any crisis.
3. Make time if children want to talk and observe children’s emotional state. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Watch for clues that they might want to talk, but understand that not all children will want or need to talk about these events. Talk to your children, validate their feelings and observe your child’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Be aware of signs that children might be in distress, e.g., changes in behavior, anxiety, sleep problems, acting out, problems at school or with academic work.
4. Be conscious of media exposure and what adults say about the event. Limit television viewing and social networking on computers, (be aware if the television, smart phone, or computer is on). Information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. frequently have inaccurate information and children can be obsessed with tracking these exchanges. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to comments that might be misunderstood.
5. Reinforce student strengths and focus on normal routines and activities. Some high profile school tragedies may prompt a public response depending upon the developmental levels of the students and the school or community’s history of related events, or proximity to the crisis. Normal routines help establish a sense of calm and predictability important to maintaining effective learning environments.
6. Consider various ways to support your child. Remember not everyone processes strong emotions through conversation. Some children and adults may need to respond through art, poetry, prayer, or activity.
7. Find support for yourself if needed. Encourage students to seek out a school mental health member or counselor if they have a continuing need to talk about the event. It is also important that parents find support and have an opportunity to process events away from their children, if needed. Take good care and seek support for yourself!
Key Messages to Give To Your Child:
- Schools are safe places. Schools partner with parents, local police and fire departments, etc. to keep children safe. Schools are safe because….
- We all play a role in school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened, or if you hear threats of dangerous behavior or suicide.
- There is a difference between reporting dangerous behavior, and tattling, “narcing”, 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.
- 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 probability that it will affect you and our school community.
- 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, suicidal thoughts, or other emotions they cannot control.
Adapted from: National Association of School Psychologists (2006). Tips for school administrators for reinforcing school safety. Bethesda, MD: NASP.