Young children 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 an event is by adult reactions (i.e., if caregivers act scared and frightened, young children will view the event as scary and frightening). They may be confused by what they hear and may have basic fear responses such as bad dreams, resistance to separate from their parent, and/or crying and clinginess. 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. Older children and teenagers may have more information about an event as they are commonly able to access information independent of adults via the Internet and television. For these youth, it is important to discuss issues openly emphasizing the efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools. It is also important to 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 the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
Schools need to keep parents informed about how they are responding to student questions and any type of support that has been made available for students struggling with the crisis. Copies of announcements or formal statements should be available to parents. Additionally, if teachers working with older students choose to have classroom discussions about the event linked to their instructional activities, parents should be made aware of these activities and any suggestions for following up at home should be offered.
Encourage parents to talk with their children and validate their feelings. They should children’s questions guide what and how much information to provide, be open to opportunities to talk when children are ready, honest about their own feelings related to violence, and emphasize the positive things that child/family/school can do to stay safe. They should be aware of signs that their child might be in distress, e.g., changes in behavior, anxiety, sleep problems, acting out, problems at school or with academic work. Remind parents and teachers to be conscious of media exposure and what they say about the event. Limit television viewing, (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.
Most high profile school tragedies will prompt schools to have some type of public response depending upon the developmental levels of the students, the school’s history of related events, or the proximity of the crisis to a community. Only the local school administrators and community leaders who are aware of the school and student’s history can judge the extent to which a response is warranted. Where schools do choose to alter their daily routines to address students concerns, large or small, it is important to know that one of the best ways for students to recover from the effects of a tragedy is to maintain or return to their normal school routines. Normal routines help establish a sense of calm and predictability important to maintaining effective learning environments. Schools should recognize that depending on the impact of the event on individuals, not all students will quickly be able to make these transitions back to the normal routine and that counseling and psychological services should be available for those continuing to require some support and guidance
It is important that schools respect the values, traditions, beliefs and customs of the students and their families impacted by the crisis. If outside crisis responders are called in it is important that they learn about cultural issues, usually through partnerships and consultation with community members who can share fundamental guidelines for appropriate interactions. Remember not everyone processes strong emotions through conversation. Some children and adults may need to respond through art, poetry, prayer, or activity.
NASP has additional information for parents and educators on school safety, violence prevention, children’s trauma reactions, and crisis response at www.nasponline.org.