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Is My School Safe? How to Ease Your Child’s Anxiety in the School Year


Credit: Getty Images

School is back in session, a time of year that often brings excitement for students. But it can also bring anxiety — and not just worries over whether their friends will be in their class. With news of mass shootings — from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to Sandy Hook Elementary School — and drills becoming more commonplace in schools, students may even wonder: Am I safe at school?

“Public schools are, statistically speaking, very safe places,” says Christopher Morphew, Ph.D., dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, which launched in May to help school leaders and policymakers build safe and healthy school environments. “The best national data on the topic demonstrate that rates of bullying and victimization in schools have decreased significantly over the past 25 years. Simultaneously, rates of adolescent anxiety and depression have skyrocketed.” While the increase is likely due to a number of reasons, Johns Hopkins experts believe fear about school violence may be one of the explanations.

“I worry that as schools are well-meaning in holding lockdown drills and similar trainings, that students are becoming more worried about the preponderance of school shootings and the likelihood that it will happen in their own settings,” says Annette Campbell Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of school administration and supervision in the school of education and the center’s academic programming director. “And I think that, as parents, we should be working to reassure our children that school is actually one of the safest places in the country that they could be.”

While anxiety over grades, peers and other worries are common in children, Marco Grados, M.D., M.P.H., clinical director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says he doesn’t typically see children in his practice due to concerns over a lockdown drill or an incident in the news. But he says it is possible for children to have some nervousness over these type of events. “I think it increases the baseline anxiety for some kids maybe for a day or two after the drill or after they hear the news,” he says. “But it doesn’t reach the clinical level where they can’t go to school or are otherwise impaired.”

If a child does express concern, parents are key in helping ease their child’s anxiety. Here are some tips from Johns Hopkins experts:

  • Spend time as a family and have regular conversations with your child. Grados says devoting quality time together is important. “That’s the problem in any family these days,” he says. “Everybody’s on their own, having their own dinner, their own phone conversations, on social media, but not interacting as a family. That, in particular, gives kids a feeling of safety more than anything else.” When talking with your child, be sure to ask nonjudgmental questions about his or her day at school. Simple questions — such as how was your day, and what did you do — will allow children to feel comfortable about communicating with parents and help them understand their voice is being heard. “It’s important, as parents, that you be able to have the kind of relationship with your children where you’re able to listen and where the children feel empowered to share,” Campbell Anderson says.
     
  • Remind kids: If they see something, say something. “Have open and frank discussions with kids about the importance of telling someone when they see risky behavior, or someone has said something that causes them concern,” says Cassandra Crifasi, Ph.D., assistant professor of health policy and management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and deputy director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, which held a course for teenagers during the summer through a $750,000 grant to help bring gun violence prevention research to more high school and college-aged students. Crifasi points to an incident in Vermont in 2018 in which she says a teenager was credited with averting a school shooting after reporting plans by a potential shooter. “It’s better to say something and have it be a false alarm than not say something at all,” Crifasi says.
     
  • Talk to kids before and after a lockdown drill or similar training. Grados suggests parents use a calm approach in talking to children before and after drills, but not dwell on the events themselves too much. “You can give children some comfort,” he says. “But if the parent is worried, the child will read into the parent’s eyes and think, I’m worried too now. So normalizing some of these daily experiences is important.”
    • Before a drill: Whether your child is in kindergarten or high school, talk through what he or she can expect during the drill, and be sure to talk to kids on their appropriate age level. Drills and trainings “are designed to be helpful,” says Sheldon Greenberg, Ph.D., professor of management in the school of education, who oversees security and technology with the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. Parents should assure their children that “It’s no different from a fire drill. It’s just in case,” Greenberg says.
    • After a drill: Have a follow-up conversation with your child. Ask questions such as what happened during the drill, how did you feel, what made you feel safe and what made you uncomfortable. “You’re talking it through with them so they are able to respond calmly and rationalize that this does not have to be a scary process,” Campbell Anderson says. “You’re also congratulating them that they went through this process, and that they were brave and strong and that they knew what to do, because that is also giving them tools to say, I know how to operate in a sense of emergency.”
       
  • If your child witnesses or hears about school violence at his or her school or about a school-related incident on the news or social media, talk with him or her about it. Ensure you talk to kids — no matter how old they are — about the incident in a way he or she understands. “Stories are often headlined, repeated and followed by commentary that tends to drive and exacerbate fear,” Greenberg says. “Parents, teachers and other school stakeholders can reduce fear by reinforcing the positives, such as reassuring them that their school is safe, and providing young people with perspective that they won’t get from news and social media.” Greenberg adds that it’s also important to squash rumors by “bringing realism” to exaggerations students may hear.
     
  • Know when to seek help for your child. Grados suggests parents consider counseling or therapy for their child when anxiety is interfering with his or her life. For example, if children are so distracted that they cannot do their homework or cannot sleep, or if they are isolating themselves from friends or don’t want to go to a particular place — such as school — because they fear what might happen. “Parents have an intuitive way of saying this is not my child, something’s different,” Grados says. “That’s when they should seek some help.”
     
  • In a related reminder, safely store your guns and ask parents of your child’s friends about gun storage in their homes. “Having safe storage in the home can lower the risk of unintentional shootings, and also restrict access to guns that can be used to harm students when they’re at school,” Crifasi says. When it comes to speaking with other parents, Crifasi recommends not criticizing choices and instead saying, for example: “We know many people own firearms. I just want to make sure if you have them, that they’re stored safely.” She says this action may even encourage parents to change their behavior. “If guns aren’t stored safely, it’s not that your child can’t be friends with that kid,” Crifasi says. “You just maybe have that child come over to your house instead, or maybe play somewhere else.”

Whether it’s an act of school violence or a drill to prepare for a potential event, Johns Hopkins experts agree parents are crucial in reducing fear. “We’re preparing children for adulthood,” says Campbell Anderson. “We’re preparing them, as parents, to make good choices. And so you want to have conversations, even about the difficult things, so they know they have a voice, that their voice is valued and that in conversations with adults they will be heard.”

Read more news and information from CEPAR’s Hopkins on Alert.