How to talk to young kids about school safety — even if you think it’s too early to start

Talking to your child about school violence is one of the most important discussions you can have; but what you say and how you say it depends on their age, says Renelle Nelson, who heads PACER Center’s Children’s Mental Health and Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Project.

“With older children, parents should look for opportunities to discuss a child’s concerns about incidents of school violence,” says Nelson. “While parents should always comfort a child, they need to also acknowledge an older child’s fears and listen to them. A good way to do this is by acknowledging what happened, while focusing on what is being done and can be done to ensure school safety.”

With younger children, the approach is slightly different. A parent’s No. 1 message is to reassure their young child that the adults in their lives will keep them safe.

“The most important thing to do when a young child brings up the topic of school safety is to emphasize that you and their teachers are going to keep them safe,” says Nelson. “A child needs their parents’ reassurance to feel safe and protected.”

One of the many ways children learn about school violence is through watching television. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their child’s viewing time to one hour per day of high-quality programming, and that parents watch with their children whenever possible, “to help them understand what they’re seeing.”

In other words, shows like Sesame StreetDoc McStuffins, or other age-appropriate programming is fine; but watching the news or even network TV shows, where a violent preview of another show might flash across the screen, is not. If your child attends a daycare or preschool, or has a childcare provider who cares for them, make sure your child isn’t allowed to view anything in their presence that you wouldn’t allow at home.

While parents should stress their own role in keeping their child safe, it can also be helpful to remind kids of other important authority figures, such as the teachers, firefighters, and doctors, and how they help keep kids safe, too.

You can also discuss rules that keep your child out of harm’s way. Does your child’s daycare follow specific protocols or have security precautions in place? Maybe you have to ring a buzzer to enter, and Grandma has to sign the child out. These safeguards are something even a young child can understand.

Simple, positive reassurances are important, says Nelson, but at the same time it’s important for a parent to be alert if their child brings up a potentially frightening topic, such as school violence. If your son or daughter is having trouble sleeping or seems worried, use the opportunity to reassure them.

It’s also important to keep in mind that children often express their feelings through play.

“You may see your child ‘acting out’ their feelings by role playing during playtime,” says Nelson. “This is normal and healthy, as long as it is short-lived and the child doesn’t seem scared. Children can work through their feelings this way. You might involve yourself in their play, using a toy to remind your child that ‘my mommy protects me, and your mommy or daddy will always protect you.’”

It’s important to remember that young children trust their parents implicitly; use this trust to reassure your child you will keep them safe.

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