It’s a grim reality, but school shootings have become so common that some students around the country have said it’s not a matter of if, but when, it will happen at their school.
They’ve been called the “mass shooting generation,” and they now experience lockdown drills as routinely as fire drills.
When the unthinkable happens, schools have a resource to turn to – NEA’s School Crisis Guide.
The guide includes advice for talking to students about violent tragedies, as well as tips for preventing school violence, but it also has resources for a wide range of crises schools can face, from natural disasters to fatal car crashes involving students or staff. It even includes information for school communities who experience ongoing trauma in violent neighborhoods or environmental stressors, such as the Flint water crisis.
Strategies to Prevent, Prepare, Respond, and Recover
NEA assembled the crisis guide to help foster the creation of crisis teams with the ideas, tips, tools, and resources that spur effective leadership and crisis management.
Knowing what to do in a crisis can be the difference between stability and upheaval. This step-by-step resource created by educators for educators can make it easier for all educators, including union leaders, school district administrators, and principals, to keep schools safe—before, during, and after a crisis.
For gun violence, the guide emphasizes strategies for prevention, including the need for identifying and addressing mental health issues and creating a positive, healthy learning and working environment.
Some crises can’t be prevented, but schools can be prepared to respond and NEA’s guide offers tips on using social media for communication, creating safe transportation routes, and working with the news media as well as local, state, and federal organizations.
The guide also offers comprehensive guidance on the response phase, from the first hour to the first week to the day students and staff return, which is a critical time to support students and families to help them feel safe and to promote healing and a sense of routine.
The last section focuses on the recovery phase, which can take months or even years.
We always hope hat no one will ever need these resources, but it’s better to have a plan in place and go through practice scenarios. If a crisis does occur, the guide provides a useful framework that every school could adopt.
How to Talk to Kids About Crises
The National Association of School Psychologists offers the following tips for talking to your students about mass shootings and other national tragedies:
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.
Create time to listen and be available 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.
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.
- Upper elementary and early middle 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.
- Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. 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.
Review school 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.
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 right away if you are at all concerned.
Limit media exposure. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Monitor what kids are viewing online and how they are consuming information about the event through social media. 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.
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.
A lot of these tips can also be applied to educators — to take proper care of their students, they must first take care of themselves.