Teachers: How to Answer Young Children’s Questions and Concerns About Stressful Community Events

sad or bored little school girl

Stressful events in the life of a child can include community stressors like the DC sniper shootings, our country making a declaration of war or a stock market crash. These community stressors impact the child based on how much they impact the child’s parents and how much information is being shared with the child, often either through news media or overhearing conversations. There are also family stressors like a parent losing a job or parents separating. There are also child stressors such as someone being mean to them on the playground often or the child switching classes unexpectedly. This post is about how teachers can best address children’s questions and concerns about community stressors.

Because of our Northern Virginia location, the immigration changes that happened this weekend and the political changes that may continue to happen over the next few years are likely to impact many of our families in unpredictable ways. While the hope is that parents will protect their young children from the news media (preschool through third grade at least), occasionally they don’t, children overhear or sense the stress. Children may have questions or make comments at school. Here a few guidelines to help manage when there is a community stressor. These are the same guidelines regardless of the specific stressor.

  • These topics should NOT be brought up as a discussion topic by the teacher to an individual or group of young children. This includes teachers speaking to each other about these topics when children are present.
  • If a child brings up the topic
  1. Listen fully to their comment or question
  2. It is best to start with providing empathy
  3. You may then:
    1. Add a comment that shows you understand them
    2. Answer their question is a small and honest way. This means answer only the question asked, in age appropriate language and without taking sides
    3. OR Let them know this is a good question to discuss with their mom and dad. Let them know that you will write their question or concern down and share it with their parents
  4. Provide reassurance
  • In the case of the immigration changes, if a child is just concerned:

“I can tell you are worried about that. Do you have any questions about what happened?”

Or “So you heard that people got stuck at an airport? You seem worried. I think it would be a good idea to let your mom know that you are worried. We can do that together at pick up.”

  • If a child asks questions:

“You heard that this weekend and now you have questions.”

“Some grown ups make the rules about how all grown ups can travel. This weekend some of those rules changed and you are right, a few people were stuck at the airport. They are safe and many people are helping solve the problem.” This would be answering the question in a small and honest way without taking sides.

  • Finishing all of the above would be saying something to reassure them that their school is safe, that this is all between grown ups who will work together to solve the confusion. Reassurance can also be that this is not about children at all.
  • However the conversation goes, be sure to jot down notes after and let parents know either at pick up or by phone.

Other Guidelines About Community Stress and Young Children

Encourage any parents to avoid all news media when their young children are present. This means no television, radio or internet when children can see or hear it. Parents should also avoid having stressful conversations about these types of issues in front of their young children.

It is helpful for parents know that they both set the emotional landscape and are the gatekeepers to the amount of information their young children have. The hope is parents can find calm and reassuring ways to speak with their children and limit the amount of information to a few basic sentences to address their concerns.

In the preschool years community or family stress can cause changes in social behavior (level of outgoing, tantrums, testing behaviors, golden behaviors), sleep patterns, eating patterns, regression in speech and bathrooming changes. Children may have nightmares or may develop new fears such as being scared of the dark or of dogs when they weren’t before.

Young children need relaxed play time, time with caring and relaxed adults, typical routines and schedules, bedtime routines and time to talk as needed. Between preschool through third grade, it is most important for parents to keep naptime and bedtime routines and schedules intact. A stressed family is never better with an exhausted child.

Parents should let their children’s questions be the guide for how much information the child needs.

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