Discussion on back to preschool concerns after the tragedy at Sandy Hook School

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on December 16, 2012

in Tough Issues

A new week of school starts tomorrow for most of us and yet, depending on the age of your preschool students, this week begins with the concern of what will tomorrow be like? Will I need talk with my students about the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut?  Should I bring up a conversation with my students about what happened?  And if I do, what should I say?  Never before have we seen something so sad, so terrible, so awful happen in an elementary school with so many young lives lost. From the emails and messages I have received from teachers and parents all over, it seems we are all left with an emptiness and the natural concern for what should we do next…

Having not experienced this type of tragic event first hand before, I wouldn’t even begin to think I have all the answers for you. But for those of you who were not living in Newtown or any where close by this tragedy and yet find yourself worried about what to say to your students, I want to share some thoughts on what to say or not to say based upon some of the comments I have received on Facebook, by email, and through other online resources and contacts…

Listen

According to Cindy Terebush, of Best Practice in Education we should start by being good listeners.  Children need to feel like it is okay to share their concerns or fears with you.  Cindy says, “We need to tell them it is okay to be afraid or sad or worried.  Children can see us feel the same way and use us as an example of accepting emotion and coping. They need to ask their questions even when we don’t have an answer.”

Be Reassuring

Young children need to feel safe. It is within a safe environment and feeling safe that young children are better able to learn and better able to cope with what is bothering them.  Find ways through your conversations with your students to always be reassuring that they are safe. Leave your deepest sorrow outside the classroom door so you can be a source of confident reassurance for your students.

Let your children be children

Although this tragedy is of great sorrow and concern to us as adults, many of your preschool age students may very well not be aware of the events at all or have very little knowledge. They may know something sad or bad happened but don’t expect them to have a grown up understanding of the events or presume that they should know any or all the details.  Some of your students may not be aware of anything at all and it is not necessary to make them aware. Let young children continue to be young children.

Don’t use this tragedy as the basis for teaching tough lessons

From reading the discussions on Facebook, I just have to add this section.  I worry that due to the heightened emotions about the tragic events on Friday and all the adult concerns about school safety policies, gun control, and any other issues that have been raised because of the tragedy, it might seem like an appropriate time to tackle tough issues in your classroom too.

  • For example, I read a comment by one person recommending a question like this: “Ask your students to tell you what they would do if a bad person broke into the classroom.”  I sure hope no one even considers asking a question like that.  

Let me encourage you to not use this tragedy as the basis of information for teaching any type of life lesson in your classroom.  Focus your energy on helping your students feel safe, where needed, and getting back to your normal classroom routine right now.  If you have tough issues that need addressed, tackle them slowly and sensitively and wisely.

Gun Play in the Classroom

I have also read that many folks plan to go back into their classroom and immediately make strict rules about gun play. The topic of gun play in the classroom is something that you will get lots of different opinions on depending on who you ask but it is important to note that play is how young children develop their understanding of their world and work through their fears, concerns, or curiosity. Keep in mind that every time a child picks up a block and decides to make it a gun that it doesn’t mean they are on the path towards hatred.  I am not advocating for gun play in the classroom – but I am saying to keep in check what would be considered normal child’s play versus a sign of unacceptable aggression. Here is an article from Teacher Tom titled Gun Play and how he tries to help his students think about what is appropriate and what is not.

Again, the point I want to make here is that whatever you do, don’t use the tragic events from Friday as the reason or explanation you give to young children about why they can’t play with guns or have pretend gun play in your classroom. If you decide that you need to establish new rules on gun play, then teach your expectations wisely and give the children time to remember and understand them.

Building empathy and a concern for others

It is always important to help young children develop a sense of empathy, concern for others, and kindness so that they are gaining the skills they need to make loving and caring choices but be sure you are taking a healthy and positive approach towards building these attributes and skills.

Talk with Parents

I also recommend that you discuss any concerns you have with the parents of your students. Don’t assume that all of your students spent the weekend watching the news with their parents or spent time listening to disturbing conversations about the tragic events.  Be sensitive and perhaps even talk with your parents about what they have shared with their children at home. Many of your parents may have strong feelings about what kind of information you share with their child so be sensitive to their concerns as well.

Take things slowly

Take things slowly, listen to any concerns raised by your students, and address them in a way that considers where they are at in their cognitive reasoning, understanding, and development.

For more reading or articles you can even share with parents, see the following links…

NAEYC: Coping with a School Shooting

Living Montessori Now: Talking with Children about Tragedy

Note from Deborah

I hope this article is somewhat helpful as you go back to school next week and I wish you all the very best. To those who have been so deeply hurt by the tragedy in Newtown, I want to express my deepest sympathy and concern for you and your families.

This article is being shared with you by Deborah Stewart of Teach Preschool - Sharing the wonders of early learning in action!

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