Talking about school shootings during class time is difficult but often necessary, says Olivia Carter, a school counselor with Cape Girardeau Public Schools in Missouri.
These conversations should be age-appropriate and provide an open space for students to discuss their feelings and be heard, says Carter, who was named School Counselor of the Year in 2021 by the American School Counselor Association.
Keep It Brief With Young Students
When discussing school shootings and other tragic events with elementary school students, you want to keep things brief and not go too deep into detail as that can cause anxiety in some students, Carter says. “I think that it's okay to say, ‘This bad thing happened. Some of you may know about it, and some of you may not.’”
Educators may also want to discuss their approach with parents, some of whom will not be comfortable with their children discussing school shootings. “If you're having those conversations, especially in early elementary, maybe reach out to the parents,” Carter says.
Give Older Students a Moderated Space to Open Up
In high school and middle school, “Kids are going to come to school talking about it,” Carter says. Educators should foster group discussions, which can help students process events. Having a moderated discussion while listening to and addressing student concerns can be more productive than students discussing it on their own and listening to the rumor mill. These conversations can also help school leaders learn which students might need extra one-on-one support.
Remind Students of Your School’s Safety Procedures
“A lot of students are just feeling anxiety all around, ‘Could this happen here? What happens if it happens here?’” Carter says. Educators can help alleviate some of this anxiety by listening to students and by reminding them of the safety procedures your school has in place. She advises really emphasizing how the school staff can make the buildings safe, and how teachers are making the effort to stay safe.
Support Teacher Wellness
“A lot of times when I'm talking to educators, I remind them that they're not the thermometer in the room, they're the thermostat,” Carter says. Teachers need to be in a place mentally from which they’re able to have open and honest conversations with students. However, the stressors of the pandemic, which have been compounded by recent events, make this difficult, Carter says.
School leaders should offer mental health services to teachers as well as students. Carter has offered her support as a school counselor to teachers who may need to talk for a few minutes and has advocated for teachers to receive therapy free of charge outside of school.
Utilize Available Resources
The National Association of School Psychologists and the American School Counselor Association both have resources for educators and school leaders looking to discuss school violence with their students.
In addition, Carter suggests I'm Not Scared...I'm Prepared! by Julia Cook is an excellent resource for students who might be experiencing stress as a result of safety drills.