How to use books to help kids cope and talk after a school shooting

Courtesy Andrea Burns

(NEW YORK) — Nearly a decade since a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, cut the lives of 20 children and six adults short, American families, parents, caregivers, teachers, and school staffers are grappling with yet another mass shooting. This week, it happened at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and at least 19 children and two adults died in the aftermath.

It’s a subject Andrea Burns has talked about with her fourth grade classes for the last eight years at an elementary school in Kansas City, Kansas.

Burns stepped aside from teaching this year, but she recalls how she and other teachers at her former school would conduct intruder drills with students regularly. She told Good Morning America that she wouldn’t shy away from speaking about a topic such as a school shooting when it was appropriate and timely.

“I’m very up front with my students, even if they’re in fourth grade. I’m like, ‘This is real life and we have to talk about this,” Burns said. “‘I don’t want to scare you, not saying this is going to happen but we have to be prepared in case it ever does.”

“I would bring up this is what happened. This is what we would do if it were us. This is where we would hide. This is what I would do. This is what you guys would do. This is the direction we would go in. This is what you would hear,” Burns said.

The educator-turned-book buyer said she used picture books to guide conversations with students on difficult topics.

“So anytime it happens, honestly, that same conversation gets brought up every single time, unfortunately. But the reason why I’m bringing out these books is because when big topics like this happen, I 100% use literacy to help kids relate to it,” Burns said.

To help adults start or continue conversations with young children about the emotions surrounding a tragedy, Burns suggests using books as a key tool.

Here are her top six book picks as a starting point (especially suitable for kindergarteners through fifth graders):

On grief and sadness

“There Was a Hole” by Adam Lehrhaupt

“‘There Was a Hole’ is incredible because it doesn’t just cover grief. It covers sadness, when you have that emptiness in your heart, whether you’re upset about something, [or] you’re missing someone,” Burns said.

Published last month, Burns added: “It’s all about how there’s a hole in this girl’s heart and her friend teaches her how to patch up the hole. It’s very, very sweet and timely and beautiful.”

On breaking news and mixed emotions

“The Breaking News” by Sarah Lynne Reul

“‘The Breaking News’ is probably the most popular in [this] category, because it’s literally about you hear something on the news and how do you react?” Burns said.

“Catching Thoughts” by Bonnie Clark

“This one is about all your different unwelcome thoughts in your head,” according to Burns. “So whether you’re feeling anxious or you have just a bunch of different feelings, sadness, anxiety. It’s about a girl who has thoughts and simply cannot lose these unwanted thoughts and they’re all represented in these different balloons and she ends up letting go of the balloons. It’s very, very special.”

On worries

“Kids Can Cope: Put Your Worries Away” by Gill Hasson

“This one talks about worrying and anxiety. How do you feel when you’re worried? Getting help with your worries, so it’s really more of a good informational book for either teachers to share with kids or adults,” Burns said.
For finding the good in times of distress

“Most People” by Michael Leannah

“It’s about the people helping people. You always want to find the good people in the bad situations,” Burns said of the 2017 book, published by Tilbury House.

On school shootings specifically

“I’m Not Scared…I’m Prepared!” by Julia Cook

This picture book, published by National Center for Youth Issues, focuses on what happens when a “dangerous someone” enters a school.

When it comes to difficult subjects, Burns recommends that adults talk to children honestly and give them the opportunity to discuss them.

“I think a lot of people try to hide the bad news from kids, but in reality, we have social media these days. They’re going to see this on TikTok. They’re gonna see it on Instagram. They’re going to see it anywhere anyway, so they might as well hear it from a trusted adult first,” Burns said.

“I just think being truthful is the first thing and I know we want to protect our kids, but there’s a way to do it, where you could have those meaningful conversations because this is going to happen throughout life. This isn’t just a one-time deal.”

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.