How to Talk about School Shootings with Children by Age

 

back to schoolSchool shootings continue to be a rare occurrence. Experts report that, statistically, your child is safer from violence and death at school than they are at home or in their neighborhood. It can be difficult to keep that in mind when we hear the death tolls and now see student experiences through social media posts related to school shootings.

It is important to keep this in mind when you speak to your child about school shootings at any age. As a parent, you provide the emotional landscape. Your words, emotion and tone can provide reassurance or add a sense of panic to the conversation. It may be helpful to calm your own thinking and emotions before speaking to your child.

I tend to think that we can often still protect preschoolers and early grade schoolers from the topic entirely. You can strive to protect them from news media and other related conversations. Of course, I’d answer questions if they have them and address any news media they might see. If a preschooler asks, you might say, “yes, that did happen. It was sad. Do you have any questions about that?” and, “your school is a safe place. The teachers and director work to keep you safe while you are there.” If a young child is aware and has questions, all of the following ideas may be helpful.

As difficult as it sounds, this is a topic to bring up directly with older students. With a third grader, you might say, “a scary thing happened at a high school today. Did you hear about it?” By sixth grade, you might start with, “there was shooting at a school today.”

You might then ask what they already know, what they think about it and how they feel. Parents may be surprised by the amount of information children have. Even young students may have unlimited access to the internet or a friend with talkative older siblings who share the details. It is often helpful to ask open ended questions and really listen both to the information and the questions a child has.

It may be helpful to have a few basic sentences pulled together to share the details of what happened. For elementary school students, this might be, “a student brought a gun to his high school. A few classmates and a teacher were shot. The police arrested him.” In middle school and high school, children often already know the details. At any age, it is helpful to clear up any misunderstandings.

A goal of this is to answer all of your child’s questions in an honest, small and age appropriate way. ‘Honest’ means you can’t promise it won’t happen at their school or near their community. ‘Small’ means aim to answer just the question that was asked to avoid overwhelming them with additional information. ‘Age appropriate’ means striving to keep a sense of idealism and safety for younger students and a realistic sense of risk for older students.

It is often helpful to let your child’s questions be the guide for how much information they need. A child who needs more information about their own school’s security or about the criminal charges of a case will likely ask those questions.

At any age, while giving answers also often provide reassurance. For younger students, this would be saying, “your school is a safe place. There are a lot of people there working to keep you safe.” For an older student, this might be discussing what safety measures are in place at their school.

It can be helpful to expect and acknowledge big emotions from children. When a child is upset, angry or frustrated, empathy is often a good place to start; this might be starting with, “I know this is upsetting. I am upset too.” or, “I hear you. You are angry!” You might also validate why they feel that way, “none of this is fair.” or, “I get it, this is a huge and scary thing to think about.”

In addition to an emotional response, older students might have a strong sense of justice and solid ideas about what should be done. It is good here to listen, reflect and stay open to their thoughts and opinions. You might ask open ended questions to help them flesh out their thinking.

Being familiar with the school’s safety plans and drills helps parents in several ways. Knowing what is in place may help to calm a parent or may give the parent a place to put their effort towards bettering the policies. When parents know the drills and plans, it can support having a fuller conversation with their child. Informed parents can also better reinforce the steps of a safety drill or answer related questions.

At any age, it can be helpful to encourage a child to listen to their teacher or follow the instructions during safety drills. For older students, it may be helpful to review the run, hide and, as a last resort fight, approach which is often suggested by safety experts.

It is also helpful to let your child know that they can talk to you about this anytime. Remind them that you are always open to discussing any thoughts, concerns or questions they have. For any big event, it is normal for children to have questions over time. For this issue, it’s even more likely to be a repeated topic of conversation as there will likely be additional events moving forward.

Whether your child brings it up or not, it’s helpful to occasionally follow-up. You might ask how they are doing or if they have any new thoughts or concerns.

By middle school, it is important for parents to also talk to children about having a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach to their own safety. In most previous school shootings, another child was aware of the thought, the plan or the related actions of the shooter before it happened. In these cases a sibling, friend or classmate had a prior conversation or knew something about the plan. Very rarely was an adult aware. All students should be encouraged to share any such information immediately with an adult.

Beyond Talk

Middle school and high school students may benefit from more active ways to participate. This includes sending cards of support, fundraising, starting and signing petitions, participating in letter writing campaigns and related marches.

At any age, you might place limits on news media. It’s suggested that children under 8-years-old be protected from news media. Children 8 to 12 years old should have guided exposure only; this means watching with an adult and having discussions about what they are viewing. Older children often have more open access to the internet and seemingly constant news. It may be helpful to speak with them often about what they are seeing and be open for conversations. If older children are stressed by the news, encourage them to take a break from it.

It may be beneficial to look for any signs of stress your child may be experiencing in the weeks and months following an event. These signs include changes in appetite, sleep patterns and socialization; this can be acting out behaviors, changes in mood and lower academic motivation. If a child seems to have significant difficulty, it may be helpful to speak with a guidance counselor, school psychologist, pediatrician or an outside therapist.

Here are two related blog posts:

Teachers: How to Answer Young Children’s Questions and Concerns About Stressful Community Events

Actions to Address School Shootings

 

 

 

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When a Two Year Old Hits

Asian Chinese little sisters struggle for blocks

This may be a two-year-old being aggressive with their older siblings, or a child in a two’s program hitting classmates. I tend to think there are three (long run, four) parts to the answer:

Coach being gentle

  1. You might read Hands are Not for Hitting by Aggasi, No Hitting by Katz, No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford and Baby Be Kind by Fletcher.
  2. You can teach “hands down,” by playing Simon Says and every third or fourth direction be “Simon says, ‘hands down,'” and encouraging them to put their hands by their sides. Or, play Freeze Dance with the direction “hands down” when the music stops.
  3. You can provide a visual cue by taking a picture of them with their hands down by their sides and show this to them when you remind them to, “keep your hands down.” This might be a reminder in general when they go to play, or your warning language if you see the behavior coming.
  4. You might practice a “gentle touch” or “nice touch” when you greet each other.
  5. Be sure to praise occasionally when they remember to be gentle, “you gave your friend a nice hug. That was gentle!”
  6. You might show and tell them about ways to give high fives, shake hands, give a gentle hug or hold hands, and praise when they do it gently.

Coach the triggers – The first step to being able to coach triggers is to identify them. It may be helpful to keep notes about the aggressive behaviors for a few days, be sure to note what sparked the behavior. This might be being told, “no,” having to share toys, getting the wrong color cup or rough house play that went too far. Coaching out of the moment might be role playing related scenarios, giving puppet shows, drawing a picture of the situation going well, providing a visual cue or reading related children’s storybooks. Here is a post about coaching wanted behaviors. The goal of coaching is to encourage wanted behaviors over time.

It may be helpful to listen to my free online workshop on coaching wanted behaviors.

Discipline in the moment

  1. A little attention to the victim first – Avoid looking at or talking first to the child who was just aggressive. Look and speak to the other saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” or, “ouch, that hurts! Do you need a hug?”
  2. As a parent, I tend to think the next step should be a logical negative consequence. Logical negative consequences are an imposed, related outcome. If they hit over a toy, they lose the toy for some amount of time. If they push for a particular seat on the couch, they are off the couch for that day. If there was no context, just a drive by, you might have them separate. This may be playing in another room or sitting out for a turn.
  3. Once this is served, it is good to either go back with a sentence of emotion or better choices. Also, it would be helpful to make a mental note of the trigger, so you can coach later.

The fourth long run answer is coaching emotion language and empathy. I say long run because, two-year-olds aren’t expected to have much in the way of emotion language and tend to have a very limited sense of others. Since they are not well versed, it is good to include emotion language and impact on others in the moment. This would be, “I know you are frustrated. You wanted that toy.” and, “wow, your friend is sad. Grabbing his toy made him feel sad.” Out of the moment, helpful to coach these things as well.

With all of this, remember you are talking to a two-year-old. This means when you are coaching or disciplining you only get a few short sentences.

 

When Children Argue, Build Their Skills

Zwei Kinder streiten sich

So often when children argue, parents intervene and solve the issue. Two children are arguing over a toy, a parent enters and decides who gets the toy and what the other child should do while they wait. Or, two children are arguing over who goes first, a parent comes in and picks which one while giving empathy or direction to the other.

When parents intervene and fix, the children are missing out on a golden opportunity to learn the skills needed to solve such social conflicts. Rather than intervene and fix, it should be intervene and teach the needed skills.

When children are arguing, a good first steps is often empathy all around. If my girls are arguing over a ball I might start with, “I know you are both frustrated, I could hear you from down the hall. You both want that toy.” This also teaches children to start with empathy which is often helpful.

Teach them to listen to each other’s words. This might be, “Did you hear your brother? He said, ‘stop.’ What does that mean to you?” or, “I heard her screaming. She clearly doesn’t like that.” You are reinforcing the other’s words to each child. Often, by the time children are arguing, they aren’t listening well.

If needed, teach them to speak up for themselves.  Many children are all over this one, they speak up for themselves quite well. If your child is on the quiet side, you might have to coax some words out of them or give them some words to say, so they can at least hold their own. You might follow this up with reinforcing their new words to the other. It can be helpful to teach your child to use an assertive voice in conflicts.

Once they feel understood or heard, the next step is to help them focus on solutions. You might ask them each to give an idea, or you might suggest a few ideas and discuss. You might teach them to weigh their options and negotiate together. The goal is to give them ways to find solutions and work through the issue together, rather than giving them the solution. This may take time and effort; it may take more empathy. It may also include taking a break and coming back to problem solving once children are calm.

If the problem solving process continues to be difficult, you might step back and coach them to be more flexible thinkers. These ideas for teaching flexible thinking are best done out of the moment, when all are calm.

  • Brainstorm options – Out of the moment of conflict, teach them how to brainstorm. This can be saying, “we don’t have time for bath tonight. Let’s think of three ways to you can get clean before school tomorrow.” Answers might include taking a quick shower, using a washcloth at the sink or taking a bath in the morning. On a game night you might say, “everyone wants to play different games. Let’s think of three ways we can settle this.” Answers might include one game each night for three nights, starting early or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide. When brainstorming, it is fine to include funny or crazy answers.
  • Plan A/Plan B – You might model Plan A/Plan B language several times before you ask them to problem solve this way. You might say, “we were supposed to run three errands today, but we only got to two, and we are running out of time. That was our Plan A, and we need a Plan B.”
  • Big problem/Little problem – It can be helpful to have children decide what are big problems, and what are little problems. In our house big problems may take a few days to solve, or several people. A few days later, someone might be upset. Little problems might only take one or two people, and a little while to solve. No one is upset about it a day later. Point out big problems and little problems in life. Then have children try to categorize their own problems.
  • Play games that require flexible thinking and discuss – This includes Labyrinth (by Ravensburger), Gobblet, Connect Four and Rush Hour Jr.. In all of these games, players have a plan and then it gets knocked out, and they have to make another plan. This may happen several times in each game. While you play, at least occasionally point out having to make a new plan or come up with new solutions.

When children are able to work through arguments, be sure to give them descriptive praise for their efforts, negotiation, flexibility or cooperation. Here is a post about descriptive praise.

How Charting Behaviors Helps: Tantrums and Aggression

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother

Charting behaviors like tantrums or aggression is often done by teachers in the classroom, so they can quickly gain a better understanding of what is happening. It is something parents can easily do at home. Charting means keeping detailed and consistent notes about the behavior. If a child were tantruming often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every tantrum I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs child was about to tantrum (cues)
  • How long it lasted
  • What they did during
  • How they calmed down
  • What happened after

Once you’ve taken notes for several tantrums, you can look across the notes for patterns. If it’s always the same time of day, maybe move snack earlier or rearrange that time of the day. If it’s the same place or happening when interacting with the same children, look at how you can change the space or separate the children. Coach the triggers directly. If turn taking triggered your child’s tantrums, make a plan to coach turn taking later in the day by reading a story about taking turns, role play taking turns or give a puppet show about taking turns. The idea is to teach them how to better manage when the trigger happens. Use the cues to better intervene before future tantrums. For some children, a cue would be their voice going up a notch or getting really whiney before the tantrum starts. If you know the cue and know the tantrum is about to start, you can intervene just before with empathy, positive intent or choices to calm and distract away from the tantrum.

Here’s a helpful post about using triggers and cues to lessen tantrums.

By charting the behavior and reviewing your notes, you are in a much better place to address the tantrums.

Likewise, if a child were being aggressive often in my classroom or at home, I’d start a notebook and for every aggressive behavior I’d jot down:

  • Where it was
  • When it was
  • Who else was around or involved
  • What seemed to set it off (trigger)
  • Any signs the child was about to be aggressive (cues)
  • What actually happened
  • What happened after
  • Any discipline given

Again, this information is meant to show patterns and give you a better chance to intervene and in the long run curb the aggression. If it’s a particular time, place or person, make changes accordingly. Triggers are what sets off the behavior, and cues are signs it’s about to happen. Children who are aggressive often tend to have fairly consistent triggers and cues. You can coach the triggers, and intervene on the cues.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a preschool. They had a two-year-old girl who was biting people often. My first questions included, “who is she biting? Where is she biting? And, when is she biting?” and, “did you notice any triggers or cues?” The answers were all, “good question.” So they took notes for a week. When we spoke again they said, “We can see it coming. She only bites people if they approach her, and she is holding stuff.” It’s a don’t touch my stuff bite. Knowing that, the teachers can focus on teaching her to say “stop,” or “mine,” when others approach. They can have her sit down, or just stay within arms reach when they see her holding stuff. They also noticed consistent cues. They said, “she gets this wild look in her eye, her mouth flies open, and then she lunges.” Scary as that is, the wild look gives them a few second to remind her to say “mine,” or hold her or say “freeze,” or say “run,” to the other child.

Here is a helpful post about discipline for aggression.

How Discipline Works Backwards for Aggression

Two kids, boy brothers, fighting in garden, summertime rainy day

The steps of positive discipline provide parents with a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. For most all behaviors, the idea is to work forward through the steps and consider which are needed or are the best fit. I tend to get through most discipline exchanges with empathy and choices or positive intent and choices, but that may not be what fits best for you. It is good to stay flexible.

It is also helpful to note that there are several ways to stay in front of this discipline including: considering logistics for ways to solve behaviors, checking your routines and schedules to avoid struggles, and giving clear and consistent warnings to help children prepare themselves. There are also proactive discipline techniques such as giving positive directions and descriptive praise to encourage wanted behaviors and lessen the need for the steps of discipline. That said, sometimes the behaviors still happen.

Here are the steps with definitions of each. For each step, I am providing an example for this scenario: Your child wants to walk at the grocery store but keeps pulling things off the shelf onto the floor.

  • I message – I messages are a way to express your negative emotion and blame the behavior or the situation rather than blaming the child. This is either passive blame, “I am frustrated, this is a mess,” or, “I am worried, something might break,” or global blame, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The point is to diffuse the blame rather than blame the child directly which leads to defensiveness and arguing.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging the child’s emotions in the situation, and understanding their upset before you move towards discipline. In the grocery store example, this might be, “I know you are bored. It is so boring to shop,” or, “I see you are excited, you love being here. There is so much to see.”
  • Positive Intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good reason behind the negative behavior. This may be, “I know you want to help,” or, “I know you are having fun.”
  • I messages, empathy and positive intent are all foundation steps in the framework. You don’t tend to see a lot of behavior change from these steps, but they help to keep communication open and encourage the child to be a listener to what comes next. The next steps, including choices and consequences, are viewed as the active steps of the framework which lead more towards changes in behavior.
  • Choices, Challenges or Contribution – These are ways to encourage the good behavior while avoiding consequence language. These techniques are more open and flexible than consequences. Choices would be, “do you want to hold my hand or help push the cart,” or, “leaving everything else on the shelf, do you want to choose the cereal or the cookies next?” Challenges would be making up a game or making it fun, “can you duck walk on the center tiles all the way to the other end of the aisle,” or, “can you count how many characters you see on the cereal boxes?” Either way, they aren’t focused on pulling things off the shelves. Contribution is giving the child a job to get them through the behavior this might be making the child the ‘list checker’ or the ‘cart organizer,’ rather than just walking.
  • Natural Consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child chooses or continues the behavior. “If you keep pulling things off the shelf, something might break,” or, “you might get hurt.”
  • Logical Positive or Logical Negative Consequences – Positive logical consequences are the good related outcomes; such as, “if you can leave things on the shelf, you can pick the cereal,” or, “you can use the scanner,” or, “you can walk the whole time.” Negative logical consequences are the bad related outcome; such as, “if you are pulling things off the shelf, you will have to ride in the cart,” or, “you will have to hold my hand.”

As a parent, when one child hurts another, I tend to work through the steps backwards and start with a logical negative consequence. This is mostly because I want it to register differently to my child. I want them to realize, “oh, when I hurt someone this all works differently.” The only way for it to register this way is to work forward for all other behaviors and avoid starting with negative consequences unless there is aggression.

  • Attention to victim first – As hard as it is, avoid initially looking at or speaking to the child who was just aggressive. Turn your initial attention to the victim child saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” This avoids giving that initial attention to the aggressive behavior and accidentally reinforcing it. I am not saying comfort, snuggle and go overboard, just avoid initial attention to the aggressive behavior.
  • Logical Negative Consequence – Again, as best you can, it’s good to give a consequence related to the scenario. If they were pushing over a toy, the other child gets the toy. If they were hitting over a spot on the couch, the other child gets the couch. It can also be fine to end the activity or leave the situation, just be sure to tie it to the behavior as best you can.
  • Empathy or Positive Intent then Choices – The consequence is where many parents end the exchange. I think it’s best to go back through empathy or positive intent and better choices for the exchange. It is going to be good to redirect the child to better behaviors following a consequence for aggression.

If aggression is happening often, it can be helpful to also coach being gentle or other related skills out of the moment. Coaching might include reading stories like Hands Are Not for Hitting by Aggasi and No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford. This might be brainstorming ways to be gentle, practicing gentle touches and making lists about how to treat people. It’s good to also coach any known triggers. If you child is hitting over taking turns, coach how to take turns by role playing, giving puppet shows, drawing pictures of it going well and drawing comics that teach the point. There is a free audio workshop on coaching wanted behaviors available at parentingbydrrene.com.

To learn more about this and other discipline techniques you can join me for a workshop in Northern VA.

Listen to my audio workshops online.

Or read my workbook: 8 Weeks to Positive Discipline.

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