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Lesson Plans

How to talk with children in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting

November 8, 2018

Full Lesson


On Wednesday night, at least 12 people including a sheriff’s deputy were killed in a mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The shooter is also dead, according to officials, who said the dance bar was holding an event for college students. For information about the shooting, read NewsHour’s What we know about the California mass shooting.


As more details emerge about the shooting, students will have questions and concerns. Many of them will come to school having read about the shooting. “Some adults may wonder how much information children should be exposed to, or what to say to reassure their children about their safety. Others may look for ideas on what to say when children ask why this tragedy happened or how they can help people who have been affected,” writes Lydia Breisith of PBS WETA’s Colorín Colorado.


If you are a teacher, parent or concerned adult, use this link to see a full list of resources on how to speak with children about gun violence, including in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. Resources are from a variety of organizations and for students of all ages. Use the resources that work best for you.


“Remember that it is ok to admit that you don’t have all of the answers,” Breisith says, and recalls advice offered from Mr. Fred Rogers: “If the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ then the simplest reply might be something like, ‘I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’m here to care for you.'”


Breisith breaks down how teachers may want to think about talking with their students based on their age. “In sharing information, be honest, but be mindful of the child’s age. The National Association of School Psychologists offers these helpful guidelines in its tips for talking with children about violence (available in multiple languages):


  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.


  • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.


  • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.”