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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Comments on this entry are closed.

1 amy caldwell December 16, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Thank you for this information. I am a pre-k teacher and I am really at a loss for words. My prayers go out to all the families in this terrible event. I know I would do the same thing that those teachers did, I would step in between anyone & my wonderful children, I treat my class like they are mine. I know in the morning I am going in and give them an extra big hug & remind them that I love them & glad they have come to school.

2 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. December 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Hi Amy,
I think your students are so blessed to have you as their teacher. If there is one positive that has come to light from this sad day is how there are so many teachers, like you, who would do anything to make sure their students are safe. So many amazing teachers out there. Truly a blessing.

3 Deb @ Living Montessori Now December 16, 2012 at 11:44 pm

This is such a sad and difficult topic, but you answered important questions beautifully, Deborah. I added your link to my post on talking with children about tragedy at http://livingmontessorinow.com/2012/12/14/talking-with-children-about-tragedy/.

4 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. December 17, 2012 at 12:12 am

You are always such a rich resource for our readers Deb. Thank you for taking the time to put these resources together and sharing them with me too.

5 Dawn Andress December 17, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thanks for the information Debra. My husband and I taught a Sunday School class this morning,with 2nd and 3rd graders,and they had some many questions,and concerns. It really broke our hearts to hear them,but we did the best we could,just letting them talk it out,and just being there for them. Reassuring that their parents loved them,we as teachers love them,and it is okay to want to remember and honor those lost. Everything your post said was spot on,and I just wanted to thank you for trying to help us all through this tough situation. Bless you, Dawn

6 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. December 17, 2012 at 12:07 am

Thank you for your comment Dawn. I would imagine older children are especially sensitive to the events that took place on Friday. It is so reassuring to know that there are folks like you there to patiently listen and be there for them. Deborah

7 Marnie December 17, 2012 at 1:28 am

Lovely post, Deborah.

8 Christine Gerber December 17, 2012 at 7:45 am

Thank you for your insightful and compassionate article, esp. the links.

9 Dana December 17, 2012 at 7:58 am

Thank you this post as we head back into our classrooms. I wrote a quick post on Saturday after seeing so many parents talking in front of their young ones as if they couldn’t hear them. I will repost this as a much more detailed follow up to my scratching the surface. Thank you, again, Deborah, well done.
http://playfullylearning.blogspot.com/2012/12/happily-playing-or-actually-listening.html

10 Lisa Howie December 18, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Thank you for a thoughtful and calming response for young children. Parents and teachers alike can take good advice from the experts you cited.

11 Greg December 20, 2012 at 3:49 am

Some great advice Deborah. As hard as it may be we should never knee jerk to any significant event, whether it be a tragedy or not, and change our teaching approach in regard to that event simply because of the type of event it is, serious or otherwise. To do so is disrespectful to the children in our charge and even more so directly affected by any such events.

In particular I want to applaud you, and Teacher Tom of course, for your stance on gun play. Too often I hear, read and even see the result of people drawing impossible conclusions about what engaging in weapon, hero or rough & tumble play will lead to. What they will all lead to are learning opportunities across a range of domains. Afterall, we are talking about pretend guns/weapons the children create or imagine themselves, not replica toys that are made to look just like the real thing.

There are too many ‘rules’ often imparted on children’s natural urge to explore themselves, each other and the world around them, which will undoubtedly lead to barriers against their growth and development.

Thank you for a calm, balanced and reasoned voice.
*2 thumbs up*

12 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. December 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm

How wonderful to find your comment waiting for me to read today Greg and for your added wisdom on this topic as well. I have two young grandsons and I do relate to what you are saying about gun play, tumbling, wrestling, and other more “rough” type of play. It may not be a preferred play yet it is a type of play that needs to be given room to evolve within a safe environment. Thank you so much for stopping by and your kind comments Greg:)

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