How to Talk to Students About ViolenceDecember 14, 2015
It’s horrifying, but it’s a fact: Kids today know all too much about incidents of mass violence. September 11th. Columbine. Newtown, three years ago today. San Bernardino, the most recent. And dozens more. Each time an attack occurs, students learn about it from TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet, family and friends. And sometimes they bring their questions and fears into the classroom.
Should schools and teachers talk with students about these kinds of attacks? If so, how? Dr. Nina Tepper, a psychologist in Los Angeles and the child development specialist at Santa Monica private elementary school Ps1, shares some guidelines:
Keep parents informed. After a violent incident, says Tepper, the head of school typically sends a letter or email to the parents with advice on how families should approach discussions of the incident with their kids. If the incident happened at a school, as with Newtown, the letter might also detail the school’s security procedures to help reassure parents that their children are safe at school.
Child psychologist Dr. Nina Tepper
Make it safe for kids to talk. Elementary school teachers usually leave discussions about violent incidents to parents and deal with students’ questions one-on-one. If you plan to discuss the incident as a class with older kids, be sure to set ground rules to keep the conversation calm and productive. Tepper’s suggested parameters: Everyone needs to respect everyone else. No laughing, teasing or put-downs. Everything stays in this room. Don’t talk about specific people in the classroom. And if anyone feels really upset or has more to say, talk to me privately.
Keep it age-appropriate. Only offer the amount of detail kids can process. Sketch the big picture for younger kids (“Some bad guys hurt people, but the police caught them”). Elementary school students get anxious easily and tend to personalize violent events, e.g. “What if this happened at my school or to my family?” For older students, the conversation can include more details and nuance.
Be honest. If students ask direct questions, answer them, says Tepper, keeping the answers short, factual and unbiased. And don’t be afraid to answer questions about your own feelings, she adds: It’s perfectly fine to tell your students that a violent incident made you sad or upset or angry.
Ask for help if you need it. Call in the school counselor or ask for outside help when you don’t know how to answer the questions students are asking, when you don’t feel comfortable answering their questions, or if any students seem to be having a particularly hard time dealing with their fears or anger.
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