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School Safety After Trauma: How Parents Can Support Their Children

Have a Wellness Plan in Place for Your Child Before & After School Safety Drills

If your child has experienced traumatic event, it’s important to support their emotional and physical wellbeing during school safety drills. Being involved in a traumatic event such as a school shooting changes the body and brain on a cellular level. Your student’s
thoughts, feelings and behaviors may look different from what they were like before the event. While this is normal, it can be confusing and scary to experience. 

Educators & Parents: Talking to Children About Trauma

One out of every four school-aged children has been exposed to trauma that can negatively impact learned
and/or behavior. Learn how you can support children through these experiences.

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The process of healing is a long and deeply personal one. People often associate significant trauma responses with certain events or the size of a tragedy, but trauma responses have a lot to do with the aftermath of the event. If someone who experiences a traumatic event can access resources and support to help them feel safe again — and if they are able to regain some form of stability and control in their lives — they’re less likely to experience a significant traumatic response.

Trauma responses also have a lot to do with other stress factors in a child’s life. If a student experiences a traumatic event and they have other stressors they’re dealing with simultaneously (or if they have already experienced past traumas), they are at a higher risk of developing significant traumatic responses. The bottom line is that everyone who endures the same traumatic event will experience that trauma and be affected by it differently, but it’s important to remember that they need to know they are not alone.

Emergency Drills Shouldn’t Re-Traumatize Students

Re-establishing your child’s sense of safety at school is the number one priority, and part of ensuring that safety is practicing drills to respond to emergencies. Unfortunately, this can bring up a lot of intense thoughts, feelings and sensations related to your student’s trauma. Knowing this, preparing for it, and caring for them through the process is important so that they don’t experience re-traumatization.

A student will probably understand on a cognitive level that a drill is just a drill, but their body and the parts of their brain that have stored the trauma do not know that. When they participate in a drill, they will be exposed to certain sensory stimuli that can bring them right back to the event and make it seem like it’s happening again. Having a before, during and after plan for dealing with their responses to the drill is very helpful.

Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Student’s Emotional Wellbeing Before Drills

Safety drills are key to increasing a school community’s knowledge of how to respond to an emergency or violence. They help prepare students to respond quickly, calmly, confidently and safely should an actual critical incident take place. You can utilize the following suggestions to support your student’s mental and emotional wellbeing before, during and after school safety drills.  

Talk with your child about the upcoming drill. Check in with them to see how they are feeling about it, what questions they have about it, and what they are expecting the experience to be like. Your child may or may not have a lot to say about it but opening a line of communication is important because they may not know how to start the conversation themselves.

Let them know that you are available to talk if they need/want to. Sometimes kids need time to process before they’re able to talk about what’s on their mind. Leaving an open-ended invitation to talk lets them know that you are comfortable and willing to talk or just listen when they are ready. 

Make sure that your child gets enough sleep, stays hydrated and eats well in the days before a drill. This will help your child have the mental and physical energy needed to handle the stress that a drill could cause. 

Communicate with your child’s teacher if you have any concerns or questions. If your child tends to become distressed when there are changes in their day or if they have been showing signs of stress and anxiety leading up to the drill (or if they are experiencing other stressors in their life), it’s important to communicate this to their teacher. Knowing these factors ahead of time allows your child’s teacher to plan for extra support and come up with strategies ahead of time so that things can go as smoothly as possible the day of the drill.

How to Support Your Child After a Drill

School Safety Student SafetyCheck in with your child. Ask if they’d like to talk to you about how things went, but don’t pressure them to talk if they’re not ready. Sometimes, it’s easier to do a 2- to 3-word check-in. Prompt them to share 2 or 3 words to describe their day or 2 or 3 words to describe how they’re feeling. This way, they won’t have to do a lot of talking, but you can still get some insight into their thoughts and feelings.

Stick with their typical after-school routine. Most of us find comfort in the familiar and children are no different. Coming home to normalcy may feel especially soothing after a stressful day.

Do not overschedule them in the days following the drills.
While some activities can offer a welcome distraction, your child may be more tired than normal after going through a drill and they need time to decompress at home.

Bump up their bedtime. Your child may have difficulty sleeping in the nights following the drill. Following a healthy sleep routine and starting this routine earlier can help them ease into their bedtime and allow for extra time to settle down if they need it.

Help your child use coping strategies if they are experiencing stress responses. Some examples of coping strategies are:

  • Breathing techniques. The more your child focuses on their breathing, the calmer they’ll feel.
    • Have your child pretend like they are smelling a flower as they breath in and blowing a candle as they breath out.
    • Ask them count as they breath, inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 4.
    • Show them how to put their hand on their belly and as they breath in, they can feel their belly expand like a balloon. As they breath out, have them try to feel their balloon completely deflate.
  • Grounding techniques
    • Use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding method. Have them list 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste.
    • Suggest that they name as many things as possible in the room that are a certain color.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique can be very helpful before bed. Have your child breathe in and tense up muscles in a specific part of their body. Have them hold their breath for a few seconds as they keep their muscles tight. As they breathe out, they can focus on releasing all tension in that body part. It’s helpful to start at either the head or feet and work your way up or down until each part of the body has been relaxed. There are guided muscle-relaxation videos online that you can search for as well.

Find some positive affirmations to write out on note cards and have your chlid keep them to read when they need to. Some examples of positive affirmations are:

  • I am safe and cared for.
  • I can take deep breaths.
  • I am proud of myself.
  • I can do hard things.
  • I believe in myself.
  • I am loved and protected.

Communicate with your child’s teacher. If you notice that your child is having difficulty following a drill, let their teacher know so that they can offer extra support at school. After a night when your child didn’t sleep, send a quick message in the morning letting their teacher know so they are aware that your child may be more tired than usual.

Contact the school and area agencies if your child continues to struggle for more than a couple of weeks. In the case that your child seems unable to return to his or her usual self or seems to be experiencing significant distress, reach out to get more support. They may benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist. Your child’s school will have a list of contacts for you to reach out to for help. 

Take care of yourself. This can be traumatic for you as well. You may have emotional reactions that are painful. Seeing your child go through trauma can leave you feeling helpless and can trigger your own trauma responses. Caring for a child who is having difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors can be exhausting. Use coping strategies for yourself. It will not only help you, but it will be good for your child to see you model self-regulation skills. Make sure that you are getting rest, eating well and staying hydrated. Getting support for yourself will help you to stay well emotionally and physically, which will put you in a better position to care for your child. If you feel like you are struggling, reach out for support. Your wellbeing is important.

How to: Advocate for School Safety in Your Community

Your school safety advocacy can take many shapes. Here are steps you can take to create a culture of safety for
your school community:

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Whole-Child Safety Takes a Whole Community

True mental and emotional wellness after trauma is complicated, but you and your student are not alone. As a trusted school safety partner, we know that it takes a community of support to care for a child’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing with an ecosystem of holistic safety and wellness in place, K-12 schools are in a better position to promote the long-term success of students. Contact us today to learn more about the steps you can take to encourage your child’s school to support the mental and physical wellbeing of students and staff.

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