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Talking to pupils about critical incidents and terrorism

Ref: 8182
updated on 9 October 2018
School types: All · School phases: All
In-depth article
Is there guidance on talking to pupils about distressing events? We relay advice on discussing upsetting and frightening events with pupils, including terrorist attacks. We also link to another of our articles with guidance on supporting pupils who have experienced traumatic events.

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  1. 1 Following a terrorist attack
  2. 2 After a frightening event
  3. 3 Discussing incidents and terrorism in lessons
  4. 4 Factors to consider when speaking to children
  5. 5 Supporting pupils who have experienced traumatic events

Article features

  • 6 external links

Following a terrorist attack

Winston's Wish, a charity for bereaved children, has published guidance on how to respond to children affected by the media coverage of major incidents such as terrorist attacks.

The guidance suggests that when discussing this with children, adults should:

Adults should show willingness to talk about difficult things, and use this as an opportunity to reassure

  • Use words that children understand, and give information to younger children a bit at a time
  • Encourage children to ask questions
  • Show willingness to talk about difficult things, and use this as an opportunity to reassure

It also answers frequently asked questions, such as:

  • How can we best explain this incident to our children?
  • What should I say about the person who did this?
  • My children are asking lots of questions about death. What should I say?
  • In school, what do we do if the pupils are role-playing shooting or death scenes?

After a frightening event

Guidance from Child Bereavement UK explains that as children try to understand a frightening event, common reactions can include:

  • Playing or drawing about the event
  • Getting angry or upset more easily
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Becoming more clingy with parents or carers
  • Physical complaints such as stomach aches and headaches

To support pupils after a frightening event, such as accidents, violence or terrorist attacks, it suggests that adults should:

  • Try to make things as normal as possible to help children feel safer
  • Help children to understand what has happened with a truthful explanation of events
  • Be available to talk with children as and when they are ready. This needs to be done carefully and sensitively at the right time for the child
  • Seek further help if you are worried that a child is very distressed or continues to be very distressed

Tips for parents

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has published tips for parents on how to talk to children about terrorism.

When speaking to children, parents should avoid "complicated, worrying explanations" as they may struggle to process information and may be left feeling more frightened and confused. It is acceptable to agree with children that attacks are frightening and sad, and that you can't stop them.

In addition, the guidance says that it is important to address victimisation following a terrorist attack as some children may feel targeted because of their faith or background.

Discussing incidents and terrorism in lessons

The PSHE Association has developed guidance for primary and secondary schools on discussing unforeseen events.


The guidance for the primary phase offers practical tips for discussing a terrorist attack and structuring questioning. It says:

To ignore, dismiss, or not answer these questions, or to pretend that nothing has happened, can be counterproductive.

It is important to answer children’s questions honestly and in an age-appropriate way, in order to allay possible fears, but also to ensure that children are clear about separating basic facts about an event from speculation, rumour or untruths.

Further practical suggestions cover:

  • Offering reassurance
  • Clarifying facts
  • Encouraging community cohesion

You can download the guidance document from the webpage below, under the subheading 'Attachments'.


For secondary schools, the PSHE Association has published a framework that identifies the importance of deconstructing events, identifying the difference between factual information, speculation and rumour. It also provides examples of questions that can be used to explore initial feelings. These include:

  • How do we feel about what has happened?
  • How do other people appear to be feeling – locally or nationally – through the media?
  • Are these feelings appropriate?
  • Are these events causing us (or encouraging us) to feel differently about a group of people or community
  • Are we in danger of 'generalising' the actions of a few to a larger group or community?
  • What activities can we undertake to prevent terrorist attacks from dividing our community?

You can download the framework from the webpage below, under the subheading 'Attachments'.

Counter Terrorism Policing has also worked with the PSHE Association to develop a series of teaching resources on terrorism safety advice, for use with Key Stage 3 and 4 pupils. 

The resources centre around an animated film, which is "designed to teach young people how to react if caught up in an a gun or knife terror attack." 

You can access the resources, including the film and lesson plans, from the following webpage: 

Factors to consider when speaking to children

We spoke to 3 of our associate education experts, Jeremy Bird, Nina Siddall-Ward and Jenny Moss, about what factors schools should consider when speaking to children. We outline these factors below.

School context

Jeremy advised that schools consider the cultural background of the school community and the potential risk of radicalisation before speaking to children. Both Jeremy and Nina emphasised the importance of communicating to parents and pupils that the school is not demonising or attacking any particular faith or culture when discussing these events.

Age and maturity of pupils

Nina and Jeremy explained that teachers may differentiate the way they approach speaking to pupils depending on their age and/or emotional maturity. 

Jeremy explained that regardless of pupils' age, teachers should be willing to listen to pupils' concerns and reassure pupils about their safety.

Nina suggested that when speaking to younger pupils, teachers may want to:

When speaking to younger pupils, teachers may want to emphasise the importance of staying close to parents and listening to instructions

  • Emphasise the importance of staying close to parents and listening to instructions
  • Help children to understand who their 'safe' adults are and who they should speak to if they do not feel safe
  • Discuss the importance of rules and making the right choices, explaining that people who commit violence are making bad choices

With older pupils, Nina and Jeremy suggested that teachers may want to

  • Stress the importance of spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) education and British values, particularly tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and the rule of law
  • Frame the incident within the context of these values

A further article from The Key looks at how schools can promote British values in the curriculum.

Special educational needs

Jenny said that for pupils with special educational needs (SEN), it will be important to ensure that the vocabulary you use when speaking to them is “at a developmentally appropriate level”.

For example, the level of understanding of a 16 year old with SEN who functions at the level of a 7 year old may be similar to that of primary-aged children without SEN.

She advised that the 3 points suggested by Winston's Wish for adults to follow in discussions with children, which we relay above, are also likely to be appropriate for pupils with SEN, and added that staff could:

  • Provide information in “bite-size chunks”
  • Give pupils a safe environment in which to speak and ask questions
  • Ensure they answer pupils' questions honestly

Jenny also said that some children with SEN may be on the autistic spectrum, and may therefore tend to “think in black and white”. It is therefore important to encourage them to be open-minded, as well as approaching the subject in a way which ensures they are not fearful of everybody.

Informing parents

Nina also advised that schools should notify parents before talking to pupils as some parents may not want the school to speak to their child about these incidents. Additionally, by informing parents beforehand they can be more prepared if pupils ask any questions at home. 

Supporting pupils who have experienced traumatic events

Another article from The Key relays expert advice and looks at written guidance on supporting pupils who have experienced traumatic events.

It also looks at supporting pupil mental health, including children experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A further article relays advice on talking to pupils about death


Jeremy Bird has extensive experience of primary headship. He has also worked with local authorities and published guidance for new and aspiring headteachers and senior leaders.

Nina Siddall-Ward is an education consultant. She is the former head of standards and learning effectiveness for a large local authority. She has been a headteacher in three schools.

Jenny Moss was the headteacher of a special school judged as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. She has worked in school leadership for almost 20 years. 

This article was updated in response to feedback from a school leader at a special school in London.

The Key has taken great care in publishing this article. However, some of the article's content and information may come from or link to third party sources whose quality, relevance, accuracy, completeness, currency and reliability we do not guarantee. Accordingly, we will not be held liable for any use of or reliance placed on this article's content or the links or downloads it provides. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence.