Children are adept at sensing what’s going on in their environments, including current events and how we, as adults, react to them. Newsworthy events happen all the time, but somehow it feels like we are more plugged in than ever. Isolating ourselves from the news can be challenging and yet exposure to it can cause increases in our own stress levels, as well as in children, who are not always able to make sense of what they observe.
So, it's important to think critically about how to best support children with their big feelings and questions about these topics. Stress for young children can manifest itself differently, including fear, a withdrawn nature, difficulty sleeping, and anxious or worried thoughts. These things can interfere with a child’s learning and development and impact their mood. So what can you do to help?
1. First, take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself and managing your own stress is important. Research shows that there is a strong connection between educator wellbeing and student learning. To take care of yourself:
Practice compassionate self-talk.
Focus on your breathing to bring awareness and help regulate.
Engage the whole class in a soothing activity like yoga, meditation, storytime, or sensory play.
Engage in some outside time and bring your students with you! Invite them to play with you in the sandbox or kick a ball back and forth.
Keep a journal to write down your feelings to revisit later.
2. Engage in age-appropriate conversations
Sometimes, students may want to talk to you about things they saw on the news or heard at home. It’s important to be available to them when they’re ready. Some children may not ever want to talk about it, and that’s ok! It’s important to follow their lead and respond accordingly:
If a child in your class seems upset, ask them if they’d like to talk to you in a quiet place or ask them if they’d like a hug if they don’t feel like talking.
Ask open-ended questions like, “how did you feel about that?” or “what made you feel that way?”
Reassure your students that they are safe and let them know their feelings are valid.
If it’s appropriate, you can create a positive and engaging experience, by asking “how can we help?” and respond as a class to a current event that children bring up.
Answer questions honestly and relay facts in an age-appropriate way.
It’s ok to say “I don’t know” and follow-up. Sometimes it’s best to revisit the topic to provide your student with a thoughtful response. Consider bringing relevant children’s books!
If you notice pretend play in which students act out threads from news or media events, remember that this is one way they try to make sense of something they don’t understand. This type of play can often feel uncomfortable viewed through an adult lens, but it is a way for children to explore things that feel scary.
Set boundaries instead of ending the play. This can create a more comfortable space for other students who are not engaging in the play. For example, one boundary could be a location for the play that separates children from those who do not want to play.
Include all students in a discussion about the play and let them help set boundaries.
Hold a circle time to allow each child to contribute. Start by asking broad questions like, “what would make this game feel fair for others who aren’t playing?” Make sure to document it!
When observing play, capture what you hear your students saying.
Show your documentation to your students and reflect on it with them. You can ask them questions, for example, “I heard you say this! Can you tell me more?”
4. Loop families in
Include families so they’re aware of topics that come up in class and can continue important conversations at home. This creates a collaborative, trusting relationship, which has powerful impacts on long-term learning for your students.
Inform families about popular games in the classroom, and reassure them that it’s part of their child’s learning.
Be clear about why you are making space for this type of play in the classroom, and let them know you are closely monitoring the play.
Create spaces for them to open up multiple avenues for sharing their thoughts and questions about the play with you.
Share resources about how the news and stress can affect their children, and gently encourage them to be aware of these impacts to make decisions of how they will monitor it at home.
If a child is exhibiting higher levels of stress over a particular topic or is fixated on a specific event, make sure to have a private conversation with the family about it. Let them know what you are noticing and share strategies with them to work with them on supporting their child.
About the Author:
Maranda VanDeWiele is a former early childhood educator who worked at a Reggio-inspired Harvard-affiliated program. She has a Bachelor of Arts with a focus on creative writing and education from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, is currently working towards her Masters in Education at Lesley University, and works as a School Ambassador at Kaymbu.