Discussing school safety with kids
This article was published by Click2Houston on September 7, 2023.
Students are well-informed about school safety and they probably have more opinions than you may know. That is why discussing fears or concerns with your student is important.
Julie Kaplow, Executive Director of Trauma and Grief at the Hackett Center for Mental Health said the conversation often goes two ways. Parents give too much information which overwhelms a child. Or they give no information at all, sending the message that the topic is too scary to talk about.
“Things that we often tell parents is really to let the child guide the conversation. So, for example, if a child hears about a school shooting, we often tell parents to, you know, ask them, ‘What have you heard about that event? And what worries do you have for me or what questions do you have for me?’” said Julie Kaplow, Executive Director of Trauma and Grief at the Hackett Center for Mental Health.
She encourages parents to listen closely to determine if their student has normal concerns versus an indication their child feels anxious.
“Child worries are things like, ‘How am I going to get my homework done or who am I going to play with over the weekend?’” Kaplow said. “If they seem very jumpy or on edge at their desk, oftentimes that’s a sign that a child might have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress that can often get confused with ADHD, where kids look hyperactive, but really they might just be hyper-vigilant because of something that recently happened to them. We also encourage, you know, teachers to look for signs that a child may be experiencing a lot of anxiety in the classroom where they are not speaking up as much, where they where they’re becoming more withdrawn in the classroom or even acting out behaviors. So with younger kids in particular, we often see behaviors like becoming more aggressive, more irritable, you know, even maybe physically hurting other kids. And sometimes that can be a sign that a child is either anxious or depressed, especially among the younger youth.”
Whether parents and students should know when certain drills take place is better defined this year with a new bill.
While lockdowns, which are required, entail turning off lights and locking doors there needs to be a certain element of surprise in order to be taken seriously, according to Kathy Martinez-Prather, Director of the Texas School Safety Center.
Active threat exercises are not required but might involve first responders showing up. These must be communicated with families so the situation is not confused with a real shooting.
“In a full-scale exercise, it’s a bit more elevated because you’re introducing stressors. It’s usually a multi-jurisdictional collaboration with first responders involved and so the laws were particularly written (and rules with TEA) to ensure that when those types of drills are being done, because of the sensitive nature of them, that the public is being notified, parents are being notified, it’s voluntary in nature,” Martinez-Prather said. “We have mental health professionals on-site when these drills are taking place.”
Teaching them to be prepared without adding more stress and confusion is a step in the right direction according to Kaplow.
“Where we worry is when kids are not prepared, where they don’t understand that this is not real and for some of our younger kids, that can happen more frequently, especially kindergartners. Sometimes (they) can’t really distinguish when it’s actually a drill versus something that’s actually happening in real life,” Kaplow explained. “We want to make sure that parents are aware when they’re happening, that the kids are aware that this is a drill, and that teachers are prepared to identify kids who might need a little bit more support. So those kids in their classroom who tend to be a little more anxious, a little more on edge, maybe providing them with a little bit more support and guidance during those drills.”
Identifying those kids is important, but can be a struggle for teachers, admits school counselor Amanda French.
“They can make the difference,” French explained.
IN GALENA PARK, THE HACKETT CENTER IS DEVELOPING WAYS TO HELP EDUCATORS KNOW ABOUT TRAUMATIC ISSUES IN A CHILD’S HOME
“Basically, if a police officer goes to a scene where a child is present and recognizes that this could be traumatic, the police has a very streamlined way of getting in touch with the child’s school. The school is notified that this is a ‘handle with care student.’ And then from that point, the teacher is made aware that this is a child who might need a little more support if they notice any signs that the child might be experiencing post-traumatic stress. We train them in what to look for if they see those signs. The child is immediately referred for mental health intervention within the school. And this is really a unique way of ensuring that both the police and the schools are more trauma-informed and also recognizing that early intervention is key. So if a child does experience a traumatic event, getting that early intervention can actually prevent long-term suffering for that child,” Kaplow said.
So far the program called “handle with care” is only in Galena Park. The Hackett Center is working to expand to more school districts in Houston and Dallas.
WHAT CAN REVERSE THE AWFUL TREND OF KIDS STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL HEALTH?
“I think one of the things that we can do that really we have been doing for a little while now is encouraging kids to seek out help. Encouraging them to recognize that vulnerability is OK, and that it’s OK to ask for help. That it is actually very normal to be experiencing feelings of sadness or anxiety and that it’s not shameful,” Kaplow said. “I think another piece to this, too, is helping them understand that even though these events are so scary, they are very rare. So even though we’re hearing about it in the media, and they’re tragic when they do happen, they’re not happening all the time, even though sometimes it feels that way.”