School Shootings: How to Talk to Students 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Try to keep it simple and supportive.

Seventeen people were murdered at a school in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday. I have struggled to find the right words, to hold back tears, and to channel my anger into rational actions. As a school psychologist and a blogger preaching about the importance of social-emotional skills, I am compelled to share my thoughts and, more importantly, to help those trying to figure out the next steps.

Last week, I read a post from Jennifer at Cult of Pedagogy asking are you a curator or a dumper? As a school psychologist, colleagues and friends ask for advice and resources. But when asked if I curated a helpful collection? Or did I find 40 resources and create a bulleted list? Guilty.

I will try right now to be a curator. Dumping information and knowledge is overwhelming, and we are all working with a little less capacity right now.

In this post, you will find tips for caring for yourself and the children you love after traumatic events.

Step 1: Take Care of Yourself

To have these conversations with children and teens, you need to be able to manage your emotions. It does not mean turning off your feelings. I have felt angry, sad, helpless, numb, and disgusted over the past two days. Share that with students. Be the emotional leader in the room.

Make time over the next week for self-care activities. I will go for a long walk tonight and reach out to my loved ones. Remind yourself of the good that happens in schools and homes daily and that you can take care of yourself and others. When bombarded with unthinkable tragedy, you must be more purposeful in recognizing the positive. Without that, putting one foot forward can feel like a marathon.

Step 2: Set the Stage

You are opening up a conversation about the possibility that school shootings like the one in Parkland can happen anywhere, including in your classroom. Just like you set the stage during the first few days of school, set expectations around these conversations.

  • Set norms around questions, responses, and sharing.
  • Let students know how you feel and other common reactions people might have.
  • Emphasize your classroom community's expectations of treating each other with respect and care.
  • Let them know you will (gently) correct misinformation about the incident.

Step 3: Acknowledge

Be honest about what happened using developmentally appropriate language. Younger children need more concrete explanations said simply in a few phrases.

Yesterday, a bad thing happened at a school in Florida. A man shot people, and they died. The police caught the man. Everyone is so sad, and there are a lot of people helping.

For older children, keep the information direct and focused on the incident and victims rather than the shooter.

It is important to remind students that all feelings are okay. Some students are not going to feel sad. The incident may feel distant and unrelated to them. Other students may feel heartbroken. Others may be thrown back into a recent tragedy they have experienced.

Take care to provide only a little information or too much information. In the age of social media and 24-hour news, children will likely have heard about the school shooting. If you are working with very young children, consider providing information to parents for them to have these conversations with their children.

Step 4: Listen

Open it up to them and let them ask questions. You can start the discussion by asking them what questions they have or what they are concerned about.

It is helpful first to find out what they know. Children will often fill in scary events with even more scary events. It is an excellent opportunity to open up a discussion and clarify misconceptions.

Allow them to help each other. You do not have to have all the answers. Let their peers come up with ways to handle feeling angry, sad, or helpless.

Step 5: Reassure

Review with students the school's procedures to deal with a situation like this. Emphasize the importance of these procedures to keep us all safe. Be honest that the school in Parkland also had these precautions in place.

Name the adults and peers in their lives who can help them and how they can help others.

You also reassure through your actions. As much as possible, return to everyday routines and predictability. These conversations can happen, and students can have the time and space to process them, but the classroom must remain safe and predictable.

Step 6: Make Space

Work with parents to limit screen time and extensive exposure to the news. Replace that with more time with family and friends. Make a plan with students for things they can do for self-care.

Provide opportunities for students to discuss the school shooting or other incidents outside of a group discussion. Consider consulting with your school counselor or school psychologist to address students who are continuing to struggle.

Step 7: Follow-Up

Continue to foster a caring classroom community by extending this beyond an isolated discussion. Follow up with parents about how they can support their students at home. Follow up with your administration about the protocols to handle tragic events. Connect with community support who could be a secondary help following a tragedy.

Observe students and watch for signs of continued anxiety or isolation.

Here are a few more resources that might be helpful:

From ASCA - Helping Students After a School Shooting

From NASP - Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Teachers and Parents

Paramjit Joshi from Children's National Medical Center says it better than I can.


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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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