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April 2003 | Volume 60 | Number 7
The First Years of School
Diane E. Levin
Teachers can play an important role in helping young children deal with violence in the news.
I used to think that young children weren't affected much by violence in the news. My ideas changed after September 11, when the children in my class immediately began talking about the attack and making drawings. They built block towers that they knocked down, using their hands as airplanes. After a few months, the talk died down, and I stopped paying attention.
But today the children took me by surprise. They started talking about a news story that they heard last night about a man with a toy gun who was shot and killed by police. We ended up having an involved discussion about rules the children have at home for playing with toy guns, how people might mistakenly think pretend guns are real and vice versa, whether there really are robbers, and how to recognize them. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention before, but the children are hearing about a lot of violence in the news—and they sure want to talk about it!
—Teacher of 4- to 6-year-olds, August 2002
Since September 11, 2001, I have heard many stories like this teacher's. Young children regularly bring up the disturbing news stories that they hear from many sources: TV and radio, newspapers, the Internet, adult conversations that they overhear at home or at friends' houses, and from everyday interactions with siblings and other children. As the news media report more violence and as children spend more time involved with media, our efforts to protect them will be imperfect at best.
Although materials have been developed for working with older students' reactions to news violence (see Lantieri, Diener, Jones, & Berman, 1999), educators have few such resources for younger students. Except for the immediate response right after September 11, 2001 (see Greenman, 2001), discussions of this topic have tended to focus on helping children who directly experience violence (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992; Groves, 2002), or on dealing with the impact of violence in movies, TV programs, video games, and toys (Cantor, 1998; Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999; Levin, 1998).
As early childhood educators, we must acknowledge that in today's world some disturbing news will inevitably get through, and we need to develop effective strategies to help young children cope. When our students bring news events into their conversations, art, and play, we can help them make sense of what they have heard, assure them that they are safe, clear up misconceptions, and teach them alternatives to violence. But figuring out how to respond when these topics come up and how to deal with the special needs of young children can lead us down uncharted paths.
Young children often look for concrete ways to express and work out violence issues, especially dramatic play and art. The following examples illustrate how children bring news violence into their play, what we can learn from their play about their understanding and needs, and how we can effectively respond.
Almost immediately after September 11, primary teachers everywhere reported students making tall block buildings and then crashing them down. Some children put miniature play people in their buildings, who got buried under the falling blocks. Some children tried to bury themselves under the falling blocks and then pretended to be dead. The many instances of block-building play that teachers and parents described sounded remarkably similar—tall buildings, crashing planes, and buried people. Teachers have described similar types of block play after other terrorist attacks on buildings—for instance, after the bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995.
Play allows children to meet one of their greatest needs as they deal with violence: suspending reality in order to create outcomes in which they feel safe. In both of the block-building examples, the play gradually changed over time—from being violent and scary to being more peaceful and safe. Children pretended to be rescue workers who put out the fires, or doctors taking injured people to the hospital. The teachers provided firefighter and medical equipment at opportune moments.
By bringing in meaningful props and familiar content that children can readily translate into dramatic action, teachers can help them transform their play from acting out violence into imagining a more comforting and secure resolution. Teachers should promote this transformation and look for its occurrence as a sign that the play is meeting the children's needs.
Often, young children incorporate news violence into their play in less obvious ways, and we can only recognize it through careful observation. For instance, in fall 2002, a 1st grade teacher became concerned about the amount of war and pretend-weapons play that the boys were engaging in on the playground, even though she tried to ban it. She wondered why the children were so persistent and whether she should be concerned. She spoke with one of the boy's mothers, who said that she, too, had seen war play increase at home. A week later the mother reported back:
I changed my approach from trying to ban gun play to asking, “Why are you using guns?” This led to a discussion about bad guys and how “they could come anytime!” He explained that “they” could come into our house, maybe through his second-floor window. I realized that there was much talk in the media this summer about child abductions and general suspicion about a man in the neighborhood who I know the kids were talking about. I tried to explain to my son that our two dogs would keep him safe, but he still held on to his fear. Then, we hit upon a solution that worked. We were given a pair of statues that the Japanese traditionally put at the front door to protect their homes. We decided to put them outside his bedroom door. The next morning he happily said, “It worked!” and he's slept well every night since. We've also seen less gun play.
This account illustrates how effectively parents and teachers can work together to support children's efforts to deal with disturbing news. What had looked like the kind of toy gun play that glamorizes violence—and often worries adults—turned out to be tied to this child's need to feel powerful and safe in the midst of the news about child abductions. If the adults had merely intensified their efforts to ban the play, they would not have addressed his concerns and needs.
Another effective way in which teachers can meet students' needs is to talk directly with young children about news events. In doing so, keep in mind the developmental needs of children.
You can start by trying to find out what students know, what they are struggling to understand, or what is confusing or scaring them. For example, if a child asks, “Will a robber come to our school?”, ask “What do you know about robbers?” Then respond on the basis of what the child seems to be asking for. Often, young children are just asking for reassurance that they are safe, exploring whether it is OK to talk about a disturbing topic with you, or looking for information to clear up some confusion. After you respond, wait and see how the child uses what you said before deciding whether you need to encourage more discussion.
When a disturbing story saturates the news, children sometimes have a hard time raising the topic themselves. One 1st grade classroom dramatically illustrates this point. On September 10, 2002, several students were building and knocking down tall block towers. The teacher asked about their buildings and why they were knocking them over. The students responded, “They're just buildings that fall over.” The teacher's follow-up questions yielded no additional information.
At a class meeting the next day, the teacher raised the issue of the anniversary of the terrorist attacks by asking, “Has anyone heard anything special about today?” Several hands went up, and all but one comment referred to the anniversary. After the meeting, tall block towers were again built and knocked down. This time when the teacher asked, the students labeled the towers “the World Trade Center that blew up” and “the Empire State Building.”
Having regular meetings to discuss the news can help young children become more comfortable and skillful talking about it. You might start by asking, “Has anyone heard anything in the news they'd like to talk about?” Often, students will focus on themselves and what they care about at that moment, and they will raise such topics as school events, the weather, and their own experiences with families and friends. Students may take a while to feel safe enough to raise upsetting issues and to develop the language they need for talking about them.
When students bring up more serious topics or when you raise them yourself, try to use a give-and-take approach for leading a discussion. Ask open-ended questions to find out more about what the students know, understand, and are concerned about. Respect and reflect back their comments. Encourage students to respond to one another. Reassure them about their safety. Provide information to clear up misconceptions and try to bring up alternative solutions to the violence that they describe.
Rather than trying to provide an in-depth discussion of the event in question, as you might with older students, build discussions with young children around those aspects of the event on which the children focus. Don't take them further than they ask to go. And don't worry if they don't get everything “right,” as long as they seem satisfied with their answers.
A curriculum project centered around the news gives young children a way to become meaningfully involved with different kinds of events and provides rich opportunities to incorporate basic skills teaching. One 1st grade classroom began working on such a project last fall. The teacher introduced the project on the second day of school with a discussion about what students knew about the news. They came up with examples of several kinds of news that focused primarily on themselves and their own personal experiences. Then the students wrote “news stories” each week to share with the class.
In their first written news reports, almost all students described their own pets, family outings, and sports activities. To try to broaden the students' definitions of acceptable news, the teacher gave a report about an e-mail message that she “just received from a friend in a faraway country named Bahrain—in a place called the Middle East.” Immediately two students said that they had heard of the Middle East. When asked what they had heard, one student responded, “Afghanistan, I think that's in the Middle East.” The word “Afghanistan” led to seven hands shooting up. Students made such comments as “I heard that the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center came from Afghanistan.” “I think the terrorists must have worn costumes so no one could recognize them.” “I went to the World Trade Center when I was 5.” (Young children almost always relate what they hear to themselves and their own experience.)
At later meetings, students continued to write news about themselves in addition to news from the wider world, including stories about the serial sniper in the Washington, D.C., area, the possible war with Iraq, and various robberies. Their ideas about what constitutes news continued to expand to such topics as professional sports teams, the weather, book and movie reviews, and health news. They discussed how to write headlines, how to illustrate their stories, and how reporters conduct interviews to get more information. Then the class began to plan for producing its own class newspaper.
Throughout this activity, the teacher made sure to communicate regularly with parents about the class discussions, including suggestions for how to talk about news issues when children raised them at home. The teacher also tried to bring in positive stories in the news—examples of people helping people in big and small ways—so that the students could see that although bad things happen, many people are working hard to create a caring and peaceful world.
We live in a period of increasing pressure to focus the early school years on teaching basic academic skills, often at the expense of addressing other pressing needs. As educators, we must take seriously our responsibility to help our youngest students deal with the violence that they hear about. By making their responses to the news a legitimate part of the early childhood curriculum, we will contribute to students' overall sense of safety and well-being, a necessary condition for effective learning to occur. We will also begin the process of helping students learn alternatives to violence and build the foundation they need to live together in peace.
Cantor, J. (1998). “Mommy, I'm scared!” How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Garbarino, J., Dubrow, N., Kostelny, K., & Pardo, C. (1992). Children in danger: Coping with the effects of community violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Greenman, J. (2001). What happened to the world: Helping children cope in turbulent times. Watertown, MA: Bright Horizons.
Grossman, D., & DeGaetano, G. (1999). Stop teaching our kids to kill: A call to action against TV, movie, and video game violence. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Groves, B. M. (2002). Children who see too much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence project. Boston: Beacon Press.
Lantieri, L., Diener, S., Jones, S., & Berman, S. (1999). Talking to children about violence and other sensitive and complex issues in the world. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility. [Online]. Available: www.esrnational.org/guide.htm
Levin, D. E. (1998). Remote control childhood? Combating the hazards of media culture. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Author's note: I would appreciate hearing from readers who have experiences with children on the issues discussed in this article.
Diane E. Levin is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts;
email@example.com. She is the author of the forthcoming book Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom (2nd ed., Educators for Social Responsibility and National Association for the Education of Young Children, in press).
Copyright © 2003 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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