Resiliency After Violence

In the wake of the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, ideas for supporting and strengthening your family and school communities

February 20, 2018
Illustration of a cityscape bleeding colors

It’s difficult to respond to last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, without being overwhelmed by feelings of anger, fear, and sorrow. The complex root causes of these shootings, their frequency, and the grim fatalism that surrounds the politics of guns in this country can be numbing.

But as the survivors of this most recent trauma are asserting, the status quo is unacceptable. So in the aftermath of this shooting, we’ve pulled together a collection of well-vetted, trustworthy resources to help educators and parents cope and begin to build resilience in their families and school communities.

First, How to Talk to Children

When a scary, violent incident happens, let your child’s developmental age guide your response, says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common project. And keep your words and concepts simple and reassuring.

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“Often what children and teenagers need most is to have someone they trust listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing the perfect thing to say — there is no answer that will make everything okay.” — National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement

Among the general advice Weissbourd has offered in the aftermath of any community crisis or incident of violence, these pieces stand out:

  • First, listen to your child. Find out what scares her — which may be different than what scares you — and hear her questions. Fears and questions are likely to change with children’s developmental age.
  • Talk with your child, even if your inclination is to shield. If we put a cone of silence around difficult topics, we may inadvertently leave children alone to cope, lessening their capacity to process their feelings. Use discretion based on age, but prepare to answer the “why” questions, Weissbourd says. (Advice from the American Psychological Association about what parents can tell their children will help.)
  • Don't watch, and don't let your child watch, traumatic visual images over and over again. This may be particularly relevant now, since recent mass shootings have come with a social media livestream. Be aware of the prevalence of viral videos and know that your children might see them.
  • Think about how you are managing your own feelings. Take care of yourself, and realize that how you respond to trauma can help build resilience in your children.   

See below for our list of high-quality resources for developing your response to a violent or traumatic incident.  

The Power of Student Voice

We’re finding hope in the amazing strength of the student voices emerging in the wake of the Parkland tragedy. Some students have stepped into an activist role, using their social media platforms as a tool for agency and advocacy. Their courage has inspired students around the country, who are joining their #NeverAgain campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

For educators and parents who want to encourage this kind of agency, you can work with students to establish a student-led school-climate committee [download a PDF for guidelines from Making Caring Common].

Researchers know that a positive school culture and the development of healthy social norms are key in preventing a wide array of social and emotional problems. And students, acting together, are uniquely able to change these norms, according to Making Caring Common.

Indeed, students have a point of view and an entrée into school culture that adults can’t have, says Gretchen Brion-Meisels. She outlines five ways that schools can integrate student voices into their practices and policies — all of which can be helpful as schools think about how to build resiliency. Among them:

  • Regularly solicit student feedback. Use surveys and other research methods to routinely gather data or ask students what’s happening, how they feel about their classes, and for suggestions on policies, culture, and climate.
  • Engage students in studying and assessing their school. Schools can train students to collect and analyze data themselves. These youth researchers can then create their own research questions and use observations and feedback from peers to draw conclusions about what’s going right, what could be improved, and how to help.

Schools should normalize the process of giving and receiving feedback, Brion-Meisels says — something that can not only improve the culture of an institution, but can create the kind of trust that may prompt students to report troubling behavior among peers.

To start a conversation about young people as a resource for change and as leaders of change, here’s a 90-minute workshop exercise, from the YPAR Hub.

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“The key is to act on multiple levels at once — not just react. Have a plan about how to build positive culture schoolwide, how to support teachers in building a positive classroom climate, and how to provide targeted supports for students in need. Then, when an incident happens, educators can ask questions not just about that individual interaction, but about what is happening within the school that may be facilitating these types of issues.” — Gretchen Brion-Meisels

Student Activism

When students engage in protests, civil disobedience, or any other form of activism, it’s important for school leaders to listen to their concerns and to support their right to protest, says educational ethicist Meira Levinson.

  • Educators can support students' right to protest without taking a stand on those views themselves. Defending students' right to voice their views can help foster civic participation and bolster a strong climate.
  • Educators should encourage conversations about difficult or controversial issues, and should do so regularly throughout the year.

To help educators explore the dynamics of student protest — and prepare to confront the inevitable complexities in their own communities — Levinson and a team of researchers with the Justice in Schools project created a case study about a large student walkout in the Portland (Oregon) Public Schools. 

For more directed activism, students and educators should consider these 10 Questions for Digital Change Makers, which helps students become effective advocates within online communities, while being safe and managing potential downsides. Civic educators can also download an accompanying teaching guide. Both resources are from Danielle Allen and the Youth Participatory Politics Research Network.

And educators can use Be the Change, a unit from Teaching Tolerance, to stir civic engagement in their students. It guides students to investigate a community problem, research and propose a solution, and develop an action plan.

Approaches to Creating a Welcoming School Climate

In the wake of this tragedy, educators are thinking with renewed energy about how they can ensure that their schools are welcoming, and that students feel a sense of belonging. That feeling of belonging is key to academic growth (as an underlying driver of motivation), but it’s also essential in creating a protective environment that rejects bullying, where extreme violent acts are not thinkable, and where troubled students are identified.

To start or recommit to this climate work, one strategy is to “convene a team of stakeholders who represent different parts of your school community — families, community members, teachers, support staff, and youth,” says Brion-Meisels. “This team can begin by articulating a vision for what a positive climate will look like at their school, whether (and which) young people are feeling safe, and why or why not they are feeling this way.”

  • Three steps to counter bullying or change a culture of bullying.
  • Our One and All series has articles and videos on how to end a culture of bullying and build a culture of support.
  • A webinar from the American School Counselor Association offers various real-world ways that educators can create a welcoming climate.
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.