A school shooting is every teacher, parent, and child’s worst nightmare. While schools, governments, and individuals are working hard to make school shootings a horrific part of history rather than a present-day reality, it’s important to know how to react in the event that students experience a traumatic and violent event at school.
It’s normal to shy away from reading about preventing or handling school shootings, as the idea of live fire in a place of education can feel impossible to process. Learning how to support students who experience a school shooting, however, can mean being prepared to help students process trauma and move forward to becoming fully-functioning adults.
How to Help Students Cope After a School Shooting
An unexpected number of emotions often occur in people who have experienced school or other public area shootings. Anger, fear, disgust, disbelief, and anxiety are all common in people who have gone through a traumatic event such as a school shooting.
If you’re a teacher, school or mental health counselor, or parent who is supporting students who have experienced a school shooting, there are a few concrete steps that you can take:
- Take care of yourself. Processing your emotions is key to allow you to serve your students and help them work through their trauma. Talking with coworkers, seeing a counselor, and/or taking anxiety or depression medication prescribed by your doctor can all help you get the support that you need.
- Stick to your usual school routine as much as possible. Children thrive when they know what to expect, and their anxiety may lessen as they see you and others guide them through their normal school activities.
- Be honest with kids. Don’t try to paint the shooting as something else, or say it was an accident. It’s important to stay developmentally appropriate, but no matter the age of your students, it’s important to let them know that while the world and its people are generally good, there are bad people who do bad things.
- Listen to your students and answer their questions as much as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s ok to tell students that you aren’t sure, or that you’ll try to find out.
- Stay in contact with parents to learn how the trauma is affecting students at home. Doing so can provide insight into where the student is struggling, and can help you tailor your approach if you notice trends (like nightmares) that occur outside of school hours.
What Is Collective Trauma?
Collective trauma occurs when a group of people experience an event that negatively affects their sense of identity, values, or belief system. When a group experiences collective trauma, they don’t just go through a traumatic event—they experience something that makes them question who they are, and often, the meaning of life.
Such collective distress can result in long-term psychological and social impacts that can be passed to subsequent generations. Collective trauma can be caused by a variety of events, including:
- Mass killings
- Racial trauma
- Long-term economic or social hardships
- Terrorist attacks
- School shootings
- Mass illness or pandemics
If your students are dealing with collective trauma, these resources may help.
- How Collective Trauma Impacts Your Health (Verywell Mind)
- Collective Trauma: Meaning & Implications (Meridian University)
- What Is Collective Trauma? (Psychology Today)
- School Shootings: How to Help Kids Cope (U.S. News & World Report)
- How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings (Child Mind Institute)
- Supporting Children After School Shootings (National Institutes of Health)
How to Support Youth Dealing with Trauma and Grief
When working to support students after a school shooting, there are many factors to consider. Trauma and grief affect children in many different ways depending on their personality, history, age, proximity to the event, and more.
Mental health care professionals and psychologists recommend following these steps in order to support children following a traumatic event:
- Stay calm and act as normally as possible. There’s no need to pretend that the event didn’t happen, but many children will find safety and comfort in the fact that many parts of school are still the same. Let kids know that even though they are dealing with fear and grief, it’s ok to have fun, and can help the healing process begin.
- Be patient with questions. It’s likely that kids will continue to have questions long after the event occurs. When kids ask questions that are hard to answer (such as questioning whether a school shooting could happen again), affirm their fears by letting them know that it’s normal to have those types of questions. Then, discuss the protective measures that are in place to keep them safe, and remind them that the bad event has ended.
- Keep an eye out for ongoing psychological issues. Many kids are numb in the weeks following a tragedy, and may seem unaffected. When the shock of the event begins to wear off, psychological issues may surface. Mental health issues are especially common in kids who have experienced trauma multiple times, lost a loved one, or directly witnessed injury or death. Nightmares, extreme anxiety, flashbacks, and other symptoms can all indicate post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Children who are experiencing PTSD need the help of a trained professional to manage their symptoms.
- Limit news exposure. Keep the information that you give to kids age-appropriate, but know that older kids and teens will start looking for answers on their own if they don’t get their questions answered. For older kids (over age 11), it can be helpful to discuss how watching and reading news reports about the event can make it hard to move forward.
If you’re helping students through grief and trauma, the following resources may be helpful:
- Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event (Child Mind Institute)
- Helping kids cope with trauma and grief related to gun violence (Children’s Hospital of New Orleans)
- Traumatic Grief (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
- Untangling trauma and grief after loss (American Counseling Association)
Discussing Hate and Violence with Youth
Kids are aware of what’s happening in their world, and sadly, this often means noticing hate and violence. Discussing hate and violence with kids can be difficult, but it can also be a chance to instill positive values at a young age.
When talking to kids about hate and violence, keep the following in mind:
- Show up prepared. Think through your own feelings, research the event or group in question, and know where you can turn to learn more about the event to answer the questions that children will inevitably have.
- Listen closely to their thoughts. As an adult, it can be easy to dismiss a child as being silly or offensive when discussing tough topics, but usually, they’re asking honest questions. Don’t ignore or dismiss comments. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest, and let the child know that you’ll work to find an answer.
- Have a plan in place to move forward. Often, kids can feel powerless when it comes to hate and violence, and helping them understand that they can make a difference can be a key step in helping them utilize their agency. Speaking up when someone is being bullied, volunteering for anti-hate organizations, and helping to boost the self-esteem of others can all go a long way in creating a less hateful world.
Resources and Information on Youth Mental Health
The following resources can be helpful when supporting children’s mental health:
- The Youth Mental Health Project
- Mental Health Resources for Adolescents and Young Adults (Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine)
- Behavioral Health Resources for Youth (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
- Mental Health Resources for Teens (TeenLife)
- Mental health of adolescents (World Health Organization)
Resources to Help Students with Traumatic Stress
If you have a student struggling with traumatic stress or PTSD, the following resources may be helpful:
- Five Ways to Support Students Affected by Trauma (University of California, Berkeley)
- Resources on Trauma-Informed Care for Schools (Department of Education)
- Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
- Resources for Responding to Trauma and Tragedy (Edutopia)
- Trauma-Informed Strategies to Use in Your Classroom (Resilient Educator)
Mental Health Hotlines
Need fast access to mental health care? Utilize these numbers for immediate assistance.
- 988 (Mental health emergency hotline)
- 911 (Emergency hotline)
- 1-800-950-NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
- 1-800-273-TALK (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
- School Shooting Resources (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
- Federal Resources for Helping Youth Cope after a School Shooting (Youth.gov)
- APA resources for coping with shootings (American Psychological Association)