How to Talk to Your Kid about Gun Violence

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 14 │How to Talk to Your Kid about Gun Violence

Tuesday, March 23, 2020



Streaming on:

Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify Tune In

Listen now:

Show Notes

Edith Bracho-Sanchez

When your child comes home from school after a lockdown drill, what’s the best way to start a conversation about it? We turn to expert Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez for guidance on these issues. She shares how to have open and honest conversations with children of all ages about lockdown drills, school shootings and all of the emotions that come along with these topics.


Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Welcome back to another episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost, Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. 

LaWanda: And I'm LaWanda Toney, your cohost and Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA. Today we're discussing how to talk to kids about gun violence and school safety.

National PTA has been advocating for gun reform for decades. Right now, along with their ABCs, kindergarteners are singing songs to remind them to run and hide during active shootings. This is our reality. Lock downs and school shootings have become almost commonplace. 

Helen: More so, many families actually feel comforted knowing that their children and children's teachers are prepared for the worst.

But recently people have begun to question these new school safety measures. The two largest teacher's unions just released a statement providing guidance that advocates against active shooter drills for students and teachers. There's a lot at stake with this issue, and parents on both sides of the debate are feeling scared, overwhelmed, and uncertain how to approach this topic with their child.

LaWanda: Helen, this topic really hits home for me as a mom. My son came home last year and told me he had a lockdown drill that day. I had no idea it was happening and I felt totally unprepared to have that conversation with him. That's why today we are welcoming an expert, Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, to help us navigate these challenging conversations with our children.

Helen: That's right. Dr Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a pediatrician and the director of pediatric telemedicine at Columbia University. She is a contributing writer at CNN, where she's written several articles on gun violence and school safety. She also has a podcast of her own, Las Doctoras Recomiendan, where she and her expert guests offer advice in Spanish on children's health.

LaWanda: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Dr Edith. Let's jump right in. Tell us about yourself. How did you get into the medical profession and what inspired you to focus on children? 

Edith: Sure. So nice to be with you guys today. So I am originally from Caracas, Venezuela. I came to the United States when I was 16. I never really thought I was going to be a doctor. There's a lot of people in this world that say, I'm going to be a doctor at a very early age, or I want to be a doctor. That was definitely not me. I was a curious child. I was curious I think most of all about people. And then I realized that I was pretty good at the math and science. And then I think eventually, the two sort of came together and I chose to go into the medical field. 

I was not interested at all in working with children when I first started in the medical field. But I think it was the, the realization that if we are going to actually impact someone's life, it has to happen early. And there were so many instances in my training where I just would stand there and say to myself, what in the world happened to this person, to this adult that led to all of these horrendous things down the line? And why did no one do anything to prevent this? 

And so slowly but surely, I, I geared towards pediatrics really out of that need to do something early. and now of course, looking back, there's nothing else I would rather do. And I was always meant to do this. 

LaWanda: That's excellent. Tell us a little bit more about how you began writing for the impact of gun violence, the epidemic on our kids. 

Edith: Yeah. So, you know, I, I write about a number of issues that impact children, and I think it is undeniable that gun violence and even indirectly, preparing for gun violence in this new reality that our children in this country are facing is impacting their health and it's impacting their future.

And I think parents and teachers are sort of left to figure it out in a lot of, in a lot of circumstances. And so I wanted to really start talking to the leaders in the field and start talking to the people that are sort of going through and helping to design standards and guidance. 

And asking, you know, how are you guys coming up with this guidance? How can we get it out there to parents and to teachers who are having to make these decisions every day? And so, and, and sort of asking those questions and, and out of that need to get it out to parents, I landed on, on writing and now have been applying some of those concepts in my own practice and in my own clinic.

Helen: Thank you, Edith. And you talked about sort of just the overwhelming decisions that are facing schools around safety. And I think on the parent's side, even just their vernacular of what actually school safety measures look like from lockdown drills, active shooting drills, to other safety measures.

Could you give us just a little bit of 101? What are some of the most frequently used school safety and gun violence prevention measures that schools are using? And what do those look like when they, when they occur? 

Edith: Sure. So I think a lot of us, you know, when we think about drills and lock downs, we think about the active shooter drills, in which unfortunately, and I say unfortunately, because this should not be happening in this country at all in this day and age, but unfortunately, schools have contracted or hired outside consultants to come mimic real life scenarios. So that is at one end of the, of the spectrum, these active shooter real life simulations that are happening with the help of outside contractors. And we've heard stories of teachers and students being lined up and shot with, with pellet guns and, and the sorts. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I think are the every day measures that we don't necessarily realize or don't necessarily categorize as school safety. But I, I call it the 'hardening of schools'. When I went to school and I went to high school, you know, as soon as I got to this country. And I don't really remember a police officer in my school. I think there were trained school professionals who had the expertise to sort of navigate a crisis and talk down students. And do the sort of every day crisis management that, that students that are seasoned have been trained to do. 

And I think more and more, we have moved in this country towards placing the police officers, the metal detectors. So those those hardening measures. So that is at the other end of the spectrum, the every day, subtle little hardening of schools. And I think in between those two spectrums are the, the fire drills, the lockdown drills that are not necessarily real life scenarios, but are nevertheless present and an active part of, of school preparation, I should say.

LaWanda: That's so interesting. The range and how vast, the different safety kind of protocols are. Is there a best practice when it comes to school safety protocols, especially from a children's health perspective? 

Edith: I often encourage people to take a step back and think about who is being affected by these practices. Right? And I think we need to remember that it's both children and teachers who are affected by practices. 

I think. It's, it's easy for people to realize that kids come to school with very varied levels of skills and abilities and, and they, you know, some kids are ready to roll and they're ready to learn and, and do whatever task is at hand. Some kids need a little bit of help, right? Like, that's an easy concept to grasp. 

I think when it comes to trauma, we don't always realize which one of the kids has been exposed to some underlying trauma or even which one of the teachers has been exposed to some underlying trauma. It's not as easy to tell, but the, the range exists and it's there nevertheless. 

We are impacting both children and teachers, and we need to remember that when it comes to best practices, we need to think about the teacher and the student who is coming to school with underlying trauma because of domestic violence, because of neighborhood violence, because of any sort of violence that they have been exposed to prior to coming to school. And we need to think about how do we best nurture that student and how do we prevent the triggering of trauma in that student. And then how do we prevent trauma in students who otherwise haven't really been exposed to it? And so the two things have to go into consideration. We have to avoid triggering, and we have to prevent future trauma in kids who haven't really been exposed to it. 

And so with that in mind, then we can get into, okay. How do we best assign these programs? And I think, you know, something that, that has really resonated with me in, in speaking with, with people around the country who work on these issues every single day, is we forget to include the students and the teachers.

So we have to start by asking what makes you feel safe? And ask the students themselves, the kids who are spending every day in that school, in that environment. And then from there. We can sort of bring in the experts, we can bring in the expert security people, we can bring in the mental health professionals and work together.

And then ultimately when we create things like lockdown drills and we design these activities, we have to, we do need to come up with rules. And that's with the statement that you guys mentioned at the beginning that the, the two largest, one of the two largest teachers unions just put out recently is that guidance, right? When it comes to lock down drills and active shooter drills. 

And, and it says there should be no simulations, right? That mimic real life events. Parents and teachers need to be given advanced notice. The content of the drill has to be developmentally appropriate. The drill should be coupled with trauma informed approaches to ensure that you know, students' wellbeing is being per served. And that includes things like giving students a chance to debrief, like after the event, let's, let's create safe spaces. And then I would stress again, you know, including them in all of this planning. 

LaWanda: Yeah. I think those are great ideas. I didn't think about the teacher as much as I thought about my child and the students and how they're effective, but effected... But I think that that makes perfect sense. I mentioned at the top of the podcast that I just felt so taken aback when Caleb came home and he said, mom, we had a lockdown drill and it's a blue code. When they say code blue, everyone has to be quiet and get under their desk. And I was really scared and I didn't know how to ask another question without feeling like, am I making this a big deal? You know, am I going to make him more fearful if I continue to ask questions? I was just so unprepared for how to ask the questions to someone who hasn't dealt with any trauma. Can you talk a little bit about that? Like, what advice would you give to a parent like me, to address the school and then to also address my child. 

Edith: Yeah. I think, you know, I'm so glad you, you bring that up and I'm so glad that you're sharing your own experience because I think your experience is one that I have heard in an interview in parents, you know, across the country and in my own clinic.

It's sort of like the shock of like, oh my gosh, I didn't know this was going to happen and my child is actually affected by this. What do I do? 

So I think. Ideally, when I say parents should be given advanced notice, it's really, I mean, on February, whatever, March, whatever we are planning a lockdown drill, your child won't be asked to do X, Y, Z, right? Like, that is like very explicit time, dates, specifics of the drill need to be given to parents. And I think if your school, you know, for, for you and for anyone who's listening, if your school doesn't do that, you have every right to ask right? Like hey, I'm a little bit you know concerned, or where I'm a little bit, or I'd like to be involved.

[00:13:07] Even just saying that. I'd like to be involved when you guys are planning these things. I don't see why a school would not welcome that. And I hope that they do. And if they, and if they don't, then we have other issues. 

But that is something that the school should be welcoming of. And, and, you know, parent engagement is always something that schools want and strive for. So, so I don't see any downsides to doing that. But then if you find yourself in that position, and many parents do, I think it's, it's taken a step back and listening.

And I'm so glad your child told you that, right? Like so many kids don't say anything. So you have already done something right because your child is coming to you and saying, hi, at school we did X, Y, Z, and I was scared. He knows the name of the emotion. He knows to tell you that something happened, right? And you can start the conversation from that. 

And even just simple questions, I think, you know, parents, just like you mentioned, are scared to, oh my gosh, am I making it a big deal or am I going to create even further trauma by just asking him? And the answer is absolutely not. Just like when we ask kids about other emotions, like when we ask kids about depression, when we ask kids about other hard topics. it's, you know, asking, does it put it in their head. I think there's, there so frequently that fear, but it is absolutely unfounded. And I just want to empower you to keep that conversation and keep asking, oh, what happened? How did you feel? And then if they tell you, I was scared. Try not to, our our urge as adults is to say, don't be scared, but try not to try not to say, don't be scared.

Kids are going to be what they are. I think you can tell them why you are not scared. Right? Like, Oh, well gosh, your school is such a safe space. Like that, that type of language, but allowing them to sort of own their emotions. 

Helen: Edith, LaWanda and I have talked about this, as it relates to her son, but I think it also brings up for me just this feeling as a, as a parent or a guardian of a child that maybe the school does know best. And you mentioned, some of the spectrum of things that schools are doing to prevent gun violence from, you know, actively simulating what it might be like to be in a mass shooting, to sort of what, LaWanda's son has gone through, which is more of a lockdown drill. And then you talked about sort of the hardening with police officers. 

Could you give our listeners a little bit of your sort of expertise being a pediatrician on what the research says of sort of these different things? Cause I'm assuming, you know, when you hear the teacher's union say like, we shouldn't do this, but we should do this, that there's some research behind it.

Could you, could you equip some of our families? Should they just feel like, why is our school doing this? It's not, it's not a good practice. To help them decide and advocate for what they think is right. 

Edith: Yeah. So unfortunately, I wish, I wish I had data and studies to share with you. And this is the scary part about all of this, is that we have no data. And to schools that are left to do whatever they can to prepare, I can't imagine this being easy. So I think, you know, we do, we do know from speaking to families around the country and speaking to experts in trauma.

That we are starting to trigger some trauma in children. I think that is not really here being debated in any way. I think the question is how do we not, right? Like how do we not trigger trauma? Until we figure out the best practices, we can at a minimum, not trigger trauma. 

So your school may be experimenting, although I hate that word when it comes to children and best practices. But they may be seeing what works and working with expert companies. And I think it's on us, the adults to understand where that expert guidance is coming from.

Because some of these, some of these companies, again, because there is no data, are sort of using experts' advice. And so we have to really educate ourselves in who are these experts and what are, what are, you know, what is their true expertise? 

LaWanda: Can we shift gears just a little bit? We sent a note out to our listeners just asking them if they had any questions about school safety and gun violence. And it gave us a couple of scenarios. Are you okay with us throwing out the scenarios and you providing some advice or recommendations? 

Edith: Of course.

LaWanda: Okay, let's do it. 

Edith: Let's do it. 

LaWanda: So here's one. It says, I'm a parent of a third grader. I received an email home that the school is doing their first lockdown drill of the year tomorrow. What, if anything, should I say to my child so they are prepared? 

Edith: Yeah. So start with, that's such a great question. So start with say, do you know where your lockdown drill is, right? I think kids sometimes know a lot more than we realize. So start by asking, what do you know about lockdown drills? What have you heard? And that gives you a sense. That gives you a really good sense sometimes of what they have heard from TV, from their schools, from social media, whatever it may be, and then from there you can build, right.

You can correct and you can build. You can say, no, actually this is what a lockdown drill is, or this is what you can expect to happen at school, and then we'll talk about it tomorrow. I think a lot of times parents think that that this is a one time fit it all in type of conversation. And really it isn't, this is something that you're building on every day.

You're going to have the chance. I'm glad that this mom is going to have the chance to talk to her third grader beforehand. And then, you know, when the third grader comes home, the day of the lockdown, you can revisit the conversation and the day after if necessary. So it's an, it's an ongoing conversation.

Helen: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So I've got a question that came in from the father of a seventh grader, saying that his son was asking a lot of questions about school shootings, and expressing fear that one might happen at his school. So the father wanted to know, how do I comfort my child, and ease their anxiety about you know how realistic it is that their school shooting will happen while still being honest. 

Edith: Yeah, and, and I love that this parent is striving for honesty, because honesty is always important with our kids, but it becomes even more important when we have teenagers. 

They, you know, parents sometimes think that teens are not coming to them for advice. But truly you are the main source of information for your teen. And if at any point you lie, you sort of lose a little bit of credibility and respect. So with honesty in mind, I think it is fair for this parent to say to this seventh grader, you know, school shootings are a reality in our country these days. However, they are still extremely rare when we look at the numbers and when we look at the percentage of schools that have been affected. So you can say it is extremely unlikely that your school will be affected by this. 

Possible, and it is a reality in our country, but extremely unlikely. And these are the steps that your school has taken. And that is where being educated beforehand on the steps that the school has taken, may come in handy. And then say, you know, are you, are you scared? And what are you feeling about this? And again, fighting that urge to correct the emotion. 

Helen: Hmm. And do you have any advice, particularly around what this parent could offer their child to ease their anxiety? Just living in that sense of, of fear. What are some things parents could do if their child is scared to go to school? 

Edith: Yeah. So I think any time we are uncertain and fearful about something that we have no control over. And this is one of those situations that we just, we simply can't control all of the time.

I think focusing on the things that are under our control. Like saying, you know, it is, it is on us and it is on the school to create an environment that allows people who need help to get help, right? Like, let us work together as a community, parents and teens and you know, everyone else in the school to create an environment where anyone who may be in crisis  can ask for help. 

And focusing on those things that do work, by the way, those things are, you know, we talked about the, the reactive measures to sort of shield the school and protect the school and how little data we have. We do have data that, that allowing kids to sort of express the need when they're in a crisis and, and responding to crisis appropriately is actually helpful.

So, so I would encourage parents to say, again, emphasize how unlikely this is, let's focus on the things that we can control, and among those things that we can't control is the sort of environment that we are creating in school. 

LaWanda: That's great. We have one more scenario for you. It states, my child's kindergarten class does lockdown drills twice a year. I want to take them out of school on those days so they don't have to go through this experience so young. What are your thoughts on this approach? Am I overreacting? 

Edith: Hm. So I am, you know, I'm listening to this and, and I'm sort of torn. On the one hand, I understand the need to protect your child and keep your child from going through an experience that may be traumatic for them. But on the other hand, I think your child needs to know what to do if there's ever an emergency at school. And not just the shooting, right? But any emergency in school. 

And so I think rather than you know, pulling your child out. What I would recommend is that you work with the school and really, really, you know ask them to, to explain and to tell you again who the experts are that they're bringing in, and how this is developmentally appropriate. And I think as a parent, the beauty of this is, you know what is appropriate for your child developmentally, right? Like I can know as an expert and whatever consultant the school is bringing in, can know as an expert.

But you know best what your child can and cannot handle. And I think asking in advance, you know, how have you guys created and designed these drills? And are they developmentally appropriate? And show me would be the best approach here, because you can weigh in. 

LaWanda: Yeah, I like that approach and I kind of need you in my back pocket when I go to school, when I send emails, like we have to figure that out. This has been really great. I appreciate all the great advice that you shared. 

Helen: Yeah. One of my takeaways from what you've been sharing, Edith is just the importance of both being honest and prepared. But also, like you said, wanting to be developmentally appropriate and protecting your child from any unnecessary trauma. What about you, LaWanda? What are you taking away? 

LaWanda: Yeah, all of that. I think that it's just really being honest with your child. Like you said, having that conversation and letting them know that it's okay to have these feelings. And that keeping the environment open to share I think is super important. And feeling empowered to go into the school and ask the questions that you talked about. Those are the kind of the takeaways that I got from it. 

Helen: Absolutely. So Edith, we want to thank you and give you a last opportunity to share one thing that you really want parents to take away from today's conversation that they could start applying right now with their own school or child.

Edith: Sure. So thank you so much for having me today. I would say if you take nothing else away from this is you really, really should feel empowered to go in and ask questions and weigh in. Because you are such an important part of this team. You're an important part of the team when you come see me in clinic, right in my office. You're also an important part of the team when it comes to school protocols, and I just don't want parents to ever forget that.

Helen: Hm. And you mentioned some guidance that's out there on best practices around school safety and gun violence prevention. Are there any places or resources if parents want to learn more, you would encourage them to check out? 

Edith: Sure. So I love the website from the American Academy of Pediatrics. There is some advice there on language that is appropriate for every age for talking about new events that are difficult. And, the Academy may be coming out soon or soon-ish with more clear guidance when it comes to, to how schools should be preparing. 

Helen: Great. Thank you for that. And before I turn over to LaWanda to help us wrap, tell us if our listeners want to follow you and learn more about your work. What are your social media handles and where can they go to learn more from you? 

Edith: Yes, I am on Twitter as Doctora with an 'a' at the end, doctor with an 'a' at the end underscore Edith (@Doctora_Edith). And then I would just share a brief plug for my podcast, Las Doctoras Recomiendan, which is in Spanish. And, it is all about health and guidance for families with children who speak Spanish. So if you or someone you know is someone who may be interested in learning more about child health in Spanish, it's Las Doctoras Recomiendan. 

LaWanda: Awesome. Thank you so much, Edith, for joining us today. We really appreciate all the great conversation that we were able to have on this great topic.

That wraps up today's episode. But before you go, be sure to check out our website, to stay in the know. And follow us on social at National PTA and use hashtag backpacknotes to join the conversation. Thanks for tuning in.



Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.