Discussing News with Three to Seven Year Olds

by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens

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After any important event occurs, the TV repetition makes sure the children will know something is going on that captures the attention of everyone. It is important, I think, that teachers and parents of young children allow the children time to express what is on their minds. (Unfortunately, some people think that the children, in their innocence, will not know about these world events. Considering this problem over the past 20 or more years, I haven’t found that to be the case.)

The following recommendations are based on what I have done with children 3 and up and would do this week about the current bombing. (Please, if you are dealing with younger children, modify what I have written in ways you will know better than I do, perhaps just being physically warmer, rocking more, making sure they know you are taking good care of them.)

It is hard for most of us to move toward an awful subject like the bombing in Boston or the shooting in Connecticut, or death, or divorce, or earthquake or flood or… but the children need someone to help them unpack their thinking and their fears, and to help them know what the emergency plan, so to speak, is for them. (And always, it is, “Your grownups at home and your grownups at school know how to take care of you.” I believe that young children never can hear this too much.)

In circle, if I had one, or with small groups repeatedly, until I got to everyone, I’d ask a provocative question, such as, “Did anyone hear anything about an explosion?” and I’d leave rather a long silence. (Start silently counting and don’t even think of saying anything before, say, 75.) Probably one child or more will have a great deal to say. Let each of the children speak at length. (If you have children who talk long, and most/all want to speak, maybe break into two groups; if you teach with a capable partner have two groups so each child will wait less.) I like to make a chart as the children are telling their concerns. Sammy said his mom says there was a bad guy; Rosie said bombing is scary; etc., and the two groups can share their charts, or tell each other what was said later, or tomorrow.

Resist the temptation to correct errors as the children explain what they think is going on.

Validate what they are feeling: “A lot of people feel that way.”

Keep notes, and take a turn for yourself at the end…or at a later time that day, if the children are wiggly and need to do something else. You will want to be heard. (If postponing my turn, I’d say”I also have some things to say about the bombings, but I’m going to do it after we’ve been outdoors and played.”) When it’s your turn, tell them what you think is going on…don’t turn attention to their errors, but tell a version you think is accurate.

“Somebody was angry and he did this very scary thing, a thing that was supposed to scare the rest of us. And we are shocked and scared, but we mustn’t stay that way. We need to think about what we know:

We know that children get taken care of by their grownups at home and at school.

We know that we will keep you safe.

We know that people can sit down and talk about troubles, and that’s always better than hitting or shooting or bombing.

Do pay attention to their emotions, as stated and as you perceived them, and tell them that you know people are scared, etc., but the grownups will do what has to be done to make things better. If you have learned specifics, such as “My daddy says children in Connecticut are getting shot. I don’t want to be shot.” then talk about: “Your parents are doing everything they can to keep you safe, Would you like me to write down how you feel, and send that to the President or maybe your grownups at home?” You can scribe a letter for this child, and any other, saying what they feel, and sending to the proper recipient.

Or suggest to the child, “You could make a picture about the explosion. You could show the scary stuff, or you could show how you want it to be, instead.” Your adult job, as I’ve described it here, is to reassure the child, provided your reassurance is true, that (in the present situation, and as far as you can see) s/he is safe and will be cared for. If the children are in danger, you must point out that all the adults (including you) are responsible not only for taking care of the danger, but for taking care of the children, and will do their very best.

Please consider sending home a letter telling the parents what you are doing. Please note that I’m taking the side of the children. They must not be left to feel that they are at risk; they must not be left to feel confused at what is going on; and they must learn that people express our concern for others in awful positions, putting our strong feelings into considered, appropriate action.

I don’t know how I would advise a family who had someone they loved die in any of the bombings, and that makes me very sad, indeed. When anyone is made powerless, we all suffer. 4/16/13

The following paragraphs came from another statement, circulated by Judith A. Myers-Walls, Extension Specialist, Purdue University, after the Columbine shootings. I think it’s very wise.

Help children use creative outlets like art and music to express their feelings. Children may not be comfortable or skilled with words, especially in relation to difficult situations. Using art, puppets, music, or books might help children open up about their reactions. They may want to draw pictures and then destroy them, or they could want to display them or send them to someone else. Be flexible and listen.

Support children’s concern for people they do not know. Children often are afraid not only for themselves, but also for people they do not even know. They learn that many people are getting hurt or are experiencing pain in some way. They worry about those people and their well being. In some cases they might feel less secure or cared for themselves if they see that others are hurting. It is heartwarming and satisfying to observe this level of caring in children. Explore ways to help others and ease the pain.

Look for feelings beyond fear. After reassuring kids, don’t stop there. Studies have shown that children also may feel sad or angry. Let them express that full range of emotions. Support the development of caring and empathy. Be careful not to encourage the kind of response given by one child: “I don’t care if there’s a war, as long as it doesn’t affect me and my family.”

Please feel free to circulate this posting (see below). I’d appreciate your letting me know if you do.

Also see, Teach through tragedy