School safety should be a top priority for community leaders in Atlanta as well as for leaders in every school across the nation. Unfortunately, too many students this year have experienced gruesome acts of school violence. According to CNN, there have been more than 23 U.S. school shootings in 2018 alone. Over time this number has increased and students have been left to deal with emotional and physical traumas from the acts of violence that penetrate the classroom. Students’ anxieties grow as they ask themselves questions such as, “Will somebody crazy bring a gun to school today?” and “Will my friends and I become the next victims?” In addition to this stress, students are expected to overcome and succeed in their studies. They’re expected to come to school every day and make A’s on every test.
Research shows that it is not easy to cope with unimaginable acts of violence and we must support students as best we can in the wake of tragedy. While it can be difficult to know what to say, expert research and clinical practice can help us with these difficult conversations. Child Trends recently released a resource report for helping adults care for students affected by school shootings. The report shares information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) and provides 9 steps to help adults talk to students about these terrifying events:
Start the conversation
Silence is not the answer and serious issues such as school shootings should be discussed immediately. It is important to talk to students about what they are seeing and hearing, even when they did not directly witness the event. Don’t let social media start the conversation with your child before you do.
Start by asking what the student already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully and try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. Listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns.
Gently correct inaccurate information
If the student has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear and age-appropriate language. Let the student know that this information may change as more facts about a shooting are known.
Encourage questions, and answer those questions directly
There may be some difficult questions about the incident. The concern about re-occurrence will be an issue. Discuss the likelihood of this risk and review safety plans for any crisis. Having question-and-answer talks gives your student ongoing support as he or she begins to cope with a range of emotions.
Limit media exposure
This may be hard to do, but try to limit exposure to too many media images and sounds of shootings. What may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing to a younger audience.
Look for common reactions
It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened. In the immediate aftermath of a shooting, they may have more problems paying attention and concentrating. They may become more irritable or defiant and their sleep and appetite routines may change. Some students may even have trouble separating from their parents or caregivers. In general, you should see these reactions lessen within a few weeks.
Be a positive role model
You may express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families, but it is important to also share ideas for coping with difficult situations. When you speak of the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims (and the heroic or generous efforts of ordinary citizens), you help students see that there can be good, even in the mist of such a horrific event.
While they may not openly ask for your guidance or support, students will want it. Adolescents who are seeking increased independence may have difficulty expressing their needs. Both children and teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love. (Be patient with yourself, too!).
Seek out extra help
Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with a student’s ability to function, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Contact your family physician, pediatrician, or state mental health associations for referrals to such experts.
Communities In Schools of Atlanta helps to provide early identification, intervention and support for students in crisis situations. We work with teachers and school leaders to implement key initiatives that improve school climate, resolve conflicts and help students cope with trauma. We also build positive self-image and self-control; both of which have been empirically linked to less violent behavior in schools.