How to Talk to Kids about School Tragedies

5 Min Read
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In the wake of another school tragedy, educators and families are left with the difficult task of talking to kids about recent events. These conversations are painful but important as we all process and grieve.

We asked Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), for tips on how to help students cope with tragic or disturbing news—particularly news that involves something so personal to them, safety at school. We have also compiled several resources and strategies for supporting students.

1. Listen to student concerns.

Start by simply asking children what they’ve heard and how they’re feeling. This way, you can clear up any misunderstandings and provide some reassurance.

“Listening is critical to meaningful dialogue with anyone,” says Cowan. “From a teacher’s perspective, it is extremely important to know where their students are as individuals—not just as a whole classroom—in terms of what they know, and what they’re feeling and thinking."

2. Keep discussions age-appropriate.

As the primary sources of accurate information, caregivers and educators should explain facts as plainly as possible, while being mindful of age appropriateness.

“A 7-year-old doesn’t need the same information or details [that you would give] a 17-year-old,” Cowan says. No matter the age, she advises against overburdening them with information that they really don’t need.

With elementary children, stick to addressing misconceptions. They might see repeated coverage of scary news as a succession of different scary events. Provide context to ensure they understand the scope of the event. Clarify misconceptions, but avoid lecturing.

“It’s an opportunity for an informed adult to help correct any factual misunderstandings,” Cowan says. “If children only get snippets of news or conversations, they might fill in the blanks with things that may make them feel worse unnecessarily.”

Middle and high school students may want to explore the politics involved or participate in charitable work related to the current event. Discuss with young people some strategies for problem solving after a crisis and challenge them to take action.

3. Highlight acts of kindness.

Share news articles that focus on the work of rescuers or volunteers in a crisis. Highlight acts of kindness, generosity, and support in your community and across the nation.

“Kids, like adults, need to find something that gives hope and shows the power of possibility,” Cowan says. “In moments that feel volatile or dark, it’s imperative to help identify what people are doing to help others and to make a positive change in whatever is causing the problem.”

Encourage kids to think of themselves as capable of making positive change. Cowan suggests raising the questions: How can my family, my classmates, or my school help? How can we make a positive difference?

4. Turn Feelings into Appropriate Action.

Narrative or journal writing can provide children with an outlet for their emotions. Writing responses or drawing pictures of how they are feeling may also help school professionals identify students who need additional psychological support.

A positive next step, Cowan says, would be to help young people transform their feelings into appropriate actions. This can give kids a sense of control and empowerment. Tell students they can:

  • Call or write their representative or senator. Students might say they want their congressperson to vote on a bill to end gun violence or suggest other ideas for change to protect kids in schools and people everywhere.
  • Contact their local legislature to advocate for change.
  • Identify ways to keep kids safe in school and present their ideas to their local school board.
  • Plan a memorial for victims of a tragedy.
  • Take part in a peaceful protest.

“[Taking action] helps us feel connected to solutions, connected to others, and that helps us feel like we can be a part of making a positive difference,” Cowan explains. “It’s an ongoing process. You don’t have that conversation once and then you’re done.”

5. Watch for warning signs.

Is the news taking a toll on kids? Watch for warning signs such as persistent fearfulness that can manifest as clinginess and sleeping problems, heightened irritability, attention deficit, depression, social withdrawal, and even physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach aches, and a lack of energy).

Cowan says most children who experience difficulty coping after a traumatic event will be fine after receiving intervention and care from their natural support systems, which can include their parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends. If those natural support systems don’t help the child reach the pathway of hope and possibility, more extensive intervention may be required.

6. Model coping strategies.

Sad news can disrupt our lives and make us feel hopeless. Studies suggest that children model their coping strategies on those of the adults around them. Keep in mind that if adults panic, children will likely panic, too. A show of strength and confidence can quell anxieties.

As parents, caregivers, and educators encourage discussion about scary news, they should also work toward restoring stability by limiting children’s exposure to sensationalist news stories and resuming familiar routines or creating new, comforting ones.

Additional Resources:

Explaining the News to Our Kids from Common Sense Media

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers from the National Association of School Psychologists

Responding to School Violence: Tips for Administrators from the National Association of School Psychologists

Helping Students After a School Shooting from American School Counselor Association

Mass Violence Resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Second Edition (PDF) by the New York University Child Study Center, 2006.

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