School shootings can be an overwhelming topic for teachers, so we compiled advice to help prevent gun violence and maintain your sanity in troubling times.
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. It can terrifying to think your school’s name could be next on the list. School shootings always stun the nation, but unfortunately they have become increasingly more common. Over half of the deadliest mass shootings in our country’s history have occurred since 2007, and seven shootings happened in 2012 alone. Many schools have increased the frequency of lockdown drills, but teachers can still feel unprepared to prevent and respond to violence in the classroom. While it is difficult to know whether a shooting could have been prevented, teachers can play an important role in preventing future gun violence in schools.
Preventing School Shootings and Gun Violence
Sandy Hook Promise, an organization committed to preventing gun-related deaths created after the Sandy Hook school shooting, recently released a video titled “Evan.” The short video follows the semester of a student, Evan, ending with a shooter firing into a crowd on the last day of school. The video then rewinds. As viewers focused on Evan, they missed a second student. In each clip, a second student is shown subtly in the background displaying a variety of distressing signs, from researching guns on a library computer to being bullied in the hallway to posting alarming pictures on social media. The video reveals how easily at-risk students slip by and then surprise their peers and the country with an outburst of violence.
Know the Signs
Teachers and students should be able to recognize signs of potentially violent students. Look for changes in the categories of self control, mental health, social isolation, threatening behavior, and anti-social behavior. Encourage your students to come to you if they ever identify these specific signs in peers:
*An excessive interest in firearms
*Aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason
*Sudden change in academic performance
*Gestures of violence
*Social withdrawal and isolation
*Threats of violence
*Major changes in eating or sleeping habits
*Dramatic changes in physical appearance
*Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness
According to Sandy Hook Promise, 80% of school shooters told someone about their plans prior to taking action. While one of the above signs alone does not signify potential violence, multiple signs should prompt concern. One of the best ways to prevent violence in your classroom is by familiarizing yourself and your students with signs of at-risk students. Once you can identify vulnerable students, you can offer them the support they need.
Make a Connection
Hayley Savens works as a licensed specialist in school psychology in Austin, Texas. As a school psychologist, she assesses students for disabilities, offers behavior support, and provides counseling and psychological services to students. In her experience, she has found that students often do not have a natural propensity toward violence, but rather don’t have the skills necessary to cope with their feelings of depression, anxiety, or isolation in a healthy way.
When creating a positive, nurturing classroom environment, “connection is the biggest thing,” says Savens. Greeting each student everyday and making them feel like a valued, included member of the class can go a long way in counteracting feelings of isolation. Connecting students to resources outside of the classroom is also crucial. Make sure the needs of your at-risk students are being met by your school’s counseling team and social workers. If your school district does not provide counseling services, connect your students to after-school programs.
Creative a Safe, Positive Classroom Environment
As a teacher, it is important to not only care for your at-risk students, but create a positive environment for students fearful of violence. According to the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, kids who watch news coverage of traumatic events experience a positive correlation with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the research is evolving, there is both a common-sense and research-based connection between feelings of fear and exposure to traumatic events.
There are a variety of methods to promote positive dialogue and keep fear at bay. Start by limiting access to news coverage. While you cannot control what students see after school, you do have control over their news intake in the classroom. The goal is not censorship, but controlling the amount of traumatic events students are exposed to so that they can process them more effectively.
The New York Times Learning Center offers a guide to talking to students about sensitive issues like school shootings. It begins by recognizing that students now receive information quickly online. “In a ‘flat’ social media world,” it says. “parents and teachers are no longer the gatekeepers, and news of all kinds reaches children — sometimes even before it gets to adults.”
This constant access means parents and teachers need to have conversations with students about the importance of taking breaks from social media and the news. Remind them that is important to care about tragic events and experience compassion and empathy. However, once those feelings affect behavior and personality, it is time to take a break.
One way to promote dialogue after school shootings is by creating a listening circle. Ask your students to sit in a circle. Offer each student the chance to speak one by one, giving them the option to pass. Let the circle go around several times in case some students need longer to process. Some students might respond better to this tactic than others, but it can be a helpful starting place to let your students express their feelings. Rather than focusing on the disturbing aspects of school shootings, ask your students to look for the helpers. In a famous quote often posted online after tragedies, Fred Rogers remembered a piece of advice his mother had given him as a child:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Ask your students: Who are the helpers in this tragedy? How can I be a helper? Finding the good in a dark situation can offer your students hope and perspective.
Additionally, consider whether your students feel safe. Often students are physically safe but they might not be experiencing “felt safety.” Savens described this as a term commonly applied to kids who have experienced trauma. After a lockdown drill, you know your students are safe but they might not feel safe. In situations like this, offer your students the chance to walk around the school for themselves, if they’re truly nervous about someone potentially being on school grounds. Let them work in groups if they need to experience community. Offer special circumstances (for a limited amount of time) to ensure your students feel safe.
Finally, keeping your students in the present is another way to promote felt safety. If your students are concerned about school shootings in the news or are tense after a drill or false alarm, stay focused on the present. Assure them that the school has a plan in case of an emergency, but right now they have math problems to work on or a book to read. Keeping them focused on the present can help divert their attention away from fearful scenarios and thoughts.
Take Care of Yourself
As you care for your students, take time to care for yourself as well. School shootings provoke fear not only in students, but teachers as well. Before you have conversations with your students about gun violence, make sure you’re in a stable place to have difficult, emotional conversations. Do your research before talking about a traumatic event so you can present facts to yourself and your students, rather than letting minds wander toward paranoia.
If you have at-risk students in your classroom or students who have experienced trauma, consider going to counseling so you do not have to carry the burden of your students alone. Take advantage of the services your school provides and practice self-care outside of the classroom.
Know Where to Turn
If you’re still struggling with how to help yourself or your students with fears about school shootings and violence, there are many resources available to you. You do not have to tackle these subjects and events alone. Here is a list of some of the best resources we’ve found. Share others that have been useful to you in the comments below.
*Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility – Ideas and resources for using cultural events for teachable moments, including national tragedies.
*Scholastic’s Resources for Responding to Violence and Tragedy – Age-appropriate advice on dealing with violence and tragedy in the classroom.
*The Learning Network’s 10 Ways to Talk to Students about Sensitive Issues in the News – A resource for teachers and students from “The New York Times.”
*Sandy Hook Promise – Offers a free booklet to download with signs of violence and steps to take once vulnerable students are identified.
*11 Essential Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the United States – A guide to mass shootings in the U.S. from “The Washington Post.”
*Changing Your Classroom with Trauma-Informed Teaching – Advice on creative a positive classroom environment and identifying the needs of your students who have experienced trauma.