Healthy Classroom Conversations don't happen by accident.
Cultivate the tools and skills you need to make your classroom
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
April 20 marks the twentieth anniversary of Columbine. It says a lot that the name of a secondary school has become synonymous with mass shooting. After all, schools should be places of learning, not trauma. So far in 2019, there have been 32 instances of gunfire on school campuses. And, there have been tens of thousands of drills conducted to prepare for a mass shooting, a scenario that should be unthinkable in our countries schools.
While drills are part of our school routine and discussions about school safety are commonplace, the idea of preparing for a mass shooting is disturbing for students and educators alike. Several years ago, NBC published an article about strategies for discussing school violence with children. These strategies are good for parents, but are even more relevant to educators since we are the ones helping conduct drills and disseminating safety reminders to our students. It is good to keep in mind that while students might seem OK, these discussions could be an upsetting source of anxiety.
Check out this article & keep in mind, you don't need to wait for students to bring up these concerns before you address them. It is also worth mentioning that this article came out in 2015, and is still applicable today. Stories that are relevant regardless of season or year are called "Everygreen." It says a lot that an article about school shootings has become "Everygreen." Today reran it today with an editor's note about the anniversary of Columbine.
Here it is:
How to talk about school shootings: An age-by-age guide
The February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida was the eighteenth school shooting of 2018. Many schools have active-shooter drills, but news of a real-life tragedy can make the possibility of a school shooting seem even more real and disturbing for students.
Some students might be very emotional, while others seem like they don't care. Just because students seem fine, does not mean they actually feel fine. Some students might cope by laughing, joking around, or exhibiting other inappropriate responses. In all cases, students look to their teachers for information, reassurance, and support.
What can teachers do in these circumstances?
1) Provide direct, accurate information. Students rely on teachers for information. Students have probably heard about the incident from the news, social media, classmates, or other adults. Be prepared to provide developmentally-appropriate facts about the incident. Younger students should receive simple, concise information while older students benefit from having the full picture. In both cases, it is beneficial to point out the positive ways people responded and provided help during the event.
2) Provide reassurance. All students deserve to feel safe in school. News of a school shooting can compromise their sense of safety. Remind students of your school's safety procedures, including drills for lockdowns, fires, and other sources of danger. Let your students know that the adults at school are doing their best to keep them safe while acknowledging that bad things can happen in our world.
3) Help children process their emotions. You can model sharing emotions by naming your own feelings (e.g. "I felt sad and scared when I heard this news.") When children share, you can help make sense of their experience by validating their feelings. (e.g. "I can tell you are very worried about this!) Attempting to change students' emotions by cheering them up can actually frustrate children. Practice active listening techniques with your students. Simply repeating what you hear them say and naming the emotions they are trying to express can help students of all ages make sense of their feelings.
4) Keep the conversation constructive. Especially among older students, conversations can devolve into angry political debates. If your goal is to help students process their feelings, feel reassured, and move forward in their day, a political debate is probably counterproductive. Political action and dialogue can be helpful for older students, but wait until the students' emotional needs are met and you can plan properly.
5) Identify helpful resources in the building. Remind students about adults who can provide support and assistance if they are distressed or distracted. And, let students know how to seek this help. Be specific! If students have not visited the school counseling office before, let them know where it is and your school's procedure for visiting. Do they need a pass? Does another adult need to escort them? Are you supposed to call ahead? If you have identified students who might need extra support, pass that information to an administrator or school counselor.
6) Collaborate with colleagues and other stakeholders. Other teachers, school counselors, school administrators, and staff members all play a key role in supporting students alongside parents and guardians. Parents in particular should know about how you have approached this dialog so that they have all of the information they need to continue to support their children at home.
7) Maintain your normal routine. After students have had a chance to process the news, proceed with your usual routine. It will help students return to a sense of normalcy and feel more comfortable.
8) Be prepared for more discussions. Processing an upsetting situation is not a linear event. Students might seem fine and then get upset again later. Listen to your students' verbal and nonverbal messages so that you can support them as needed.
Here are other resources on talking to children about upsetting events. Some of these are geared towards parents, but can also apply to teachers.
Helping Kids During Crisis, American School Counselor Association.
Mass Shooting in Las Vegas: How to Talk to Students, October 2017, NEA Today.
Tips for Talking to Children about the Shooting, December 2012, New York Times.