I have a pit in my stomach over the thought of returning to school tomorrow and facing the questions and concerns my students may have. I am feeling so grateful to have a class to go back to tomorrow and I want to make sure I am as prepared as possible to support my kids as they try to comprehend this illogical event.
My mom’s school district has compiled the following tips for teachers. She was thoughtful enough to share it with me and I wanted to share it with you.
Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
National Association of School Psychologists ( www.nasponline.org )
**Italics – Additional Suggestions from Central Office Administration
High profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.
1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
While school shootings do occur, they are very rare events. Adults are doing everything they can to make sure it does not happen here. In Wallingford, we do several things to increase safety:
• we lock our school doors
• visitors must press a buzzer and be let into the building
• we practice safety drills (fire, lock down)
2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
Time to process students’ questions may be necessary in the coming days and weeks, but returning to a sense of normalcy is also important to healing. Unless you believe the entire class needs to process their questions, do not hold class-wide discussions or special lessons devoted to the topic. Try to continue classroom routines and school schedules.
3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
• Early elementary school 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. Give 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.
Only answer questions asked. Young students process information at varying rates and may not be ready for more information. Young students can become overwhelmed by too much information.
• Upper elementary school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are 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.
Emphasizing the rarity of events such as that at Sandy Hook Elementary School may be reassuring to students. Reiterating safety procedures and drills and the importance of
reporting suspicions to school staff would be appropriate if persistent questions come up.
4. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
Wait for guidance on safety drills from your administrator. It makes sense to review routine classroom safety procedures with students this week.
5. 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.
It is essential that teachers, administrators, and mental health staff have open communication during the days and weeks to come. A general rule of thumb in reporting concerns is: If your concerns for a student will worry you overnight or keep you from sleeping well, REPORT IT! Immediately contact parents about your concerns. This applies to teachers, administrators, and mental health staff. Err on the side of caution!
6. Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. 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 vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.
If you have conversations with parents in the coming days, encourage them to turn the TV news off when children are in the room. As always, please be mindful of adult conversations that can be overheard by students.
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.
Reinforce the advice in tip #7 with parents. In school, time to process students’ questions may be necessary in the coming days and weeks, but returning to a sense of normalcy is also important to healing. Try to continue classroom routines and school schedules.
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.