Talking With Kids About School Violence and Trauma

Listening to students and providing reassurance can help them rebound when traumatic events affect the community.

The devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has once again brought school violence to the forefront of the national conversation. If they have heard the news, your students may worry about their own safety at school. They may feel anxious or afraid. The best way to respond, according to experts, is to listen, assure them that they are safe, and maintain a sense of normalcy. Below is some expert information about how kids process trauma, as well as tips for facilitating conversations about traumatic events in a developmentally appropriate way.  

Helping Kids Cope

We asked Dr. Jamie Howard, a trauma specialist with the Child Mind Institute, for tips on helping children cope with trauma.

Q: What are some typical reactions kids have in the wake of a trauma?

In the immediate aftermath, it’s very typical for kids to be more clingy or distracted. They may cry a little bit more easily, or seem more fidgety or hyperactive because they still have a lingering fight-or-flight response. Children may also worry about separating from the important grown-ups in their life, and they may be very concerned about the safety of others, including their pets.

Q: How does a child’s age affect her perception and understanding of traumatic events?

Preschool and early elementary students are still in the age of magical thinking. They try to infer causality, but they do it in ways that wouldn’t make sense to adults. So they may think, “The shooting happened on a Friday, so Fridays must be dangerous days,” or “I wore a pink shirt that day and bad things happen when I wear pink.”

Around third or fourth grade, students begin to shift to concrete thinking and to focus on right and wrong. They may think, “This bad guy should be punished. He broke a rule. Why did he break a rule?” They don’t yet understand complexity and are black-and-white thinkers.

Q: How do kids process and deal with traumatic events?

Younger kids may process trauma through play. Right after a trauma, it is completely typical for children to “play” the trauma. That can be really upsetting to grown-ups. It’s hard for us to see a child in distress trying to make sense of tragic or overwhelming situations. Instead of overreacting, ask questions. Something that looks disturbing to us may actually be a child’s way of making sense of the situation. Older kids are more likely to talk about the trauma, to process it through conversation.

Q: How can teachers help?

Be patient. Set aside time for check-ins and make sure your students have someone they can talk to. Set up a system so that the child can discreetly leave the room if he or she needs a few minutes to talk to the guidance counselor or a school psychologist.

Also, communicate with parents; together, you can more effectively monitor symptoms and progress. Help the kids label their feelings; the simple act of acknowledging one’s feelings and accurately labeling them is therapeutic. After the first couple of days, return to your regular routines and expectations. Consistency helps children feel safe.

Q: What are some indications that a child might need professional intervention?

If a child is still having a lot of difficulties in the classroom months after a trauma, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder. If their symptoms are interfering with their ability to pay attention and learn in school, it may be time for clinical intervention.

Tips for Talking With Kids

Be available. Create some extra space in your schedule during the first few days after a trauma by removing less important activities. Let your students know that you’re available if they want to talk.

Ask questions. What do they know? Think? Kids’ perceptions of traumatic events may be drastically different from an adult’s perception, and each student will likely have a different understanding of the situation. While you don’t want to grill your students, open-ended questions will help you understand their concerns. It’s recommended that you not initiate discussion of the event with kids in the elementary grades, unless they’ve broached the topic first.

Explain in a developmentally appropriate way. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) suggests tailoring your explanations to make them developmentally appropriate. A few of their suggestions are outlined here with links to additional resources below.

  • Grades K-2: Keep explanations simple. Reassure children that they are safe and adults are there to protect them. Allow them to express their feelings through drawing or imaginative play.
  • Grades 3-6: Students may have specific questions about what is being done to keep them safe. Discuss your school’s safety plan and answer questions. Students at this age may need help separating reality from fantasy.
  • Grades 7-12: Students will be more vocal in their opinions and may have suggestions for changes to safety protocols the school should make. Include them as an integral part of the process of keeping the school safe and remind them to report unsafe activity to administrators. 

Follow their lead. If a student seems unconcerned by a local or national tragedy, that’s okay. Support your student by saying, “If you have any questions or you start to have more feelings about this, you can come talk to me.”

Give students some leeway. Exposure to trauma can lead to emotional outbursts, unpredictable behavior, and avoidance of certain activities. If a child is acting out of sorts following a trauma, don’t jump to disciplinary responses. Try to figure out what’s going on instead.

Provide reassurance. Kids want to feel safe. Remind them that the school has procedures in place to keep them secure, and that many, many adults are working to keep them safe.

Emotional Support for Teachers

While you’ll want to tend to your students’ needs, it’s important to attend to your own fears and anxieties as well. Here are some ideas to help you cope.

Build a community of support. Teachers need support from other adults to process their emotions. Make time to reach out to your colleagues.

Create time to grieve. In the event of a tragedy that affects you and your school community personally, you may want to have a plan in place that gives you and your fellow teachers a chance to leave the room for mini-breaks as needed.

Try visualization exercises. As important as it is to take time to deal with distressing feelings, there are also times when it’s necessary to temporarily push away the pain in order to function. Try visualizing your worries as a big boulder that you can push away. Or picture yourself loading your troubles into a canoe and pushing it downstream.

Take care of your physical needs. It’s easy to forget to eat, sleep, or drink when you’re wrapped up in a trauma. But unless you take care of yourself, you’re likely to get sick. Make a special effort to maintain good nutrition, sleep, and exercise habits. Maintaining regular routines can help you feel more secure, too.

Seek help if necessary. It’s perfectly normal to be upset in the days and weeks following a tragedy. But if your feelings of distress linger for more than month, or if you’re having difficulty meeting your usual obligations, it may be time for professional help. Find out what kind of assistance is available through your school’s Employee Assistance Program, or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.

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