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Published in Print: April 2, 2003, as Coping With 'the World That They Know'

Coping With 'the World That They Know'

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For little kids, the world can be a scary place—even in the best of times. Now, the pervasive and sometimes graphic images of war consuming the airwaves are posing even greater challenges for preschool and elementary teachers trying to allay such fears and put current events into perspective for young children.

As much as they'd like to concentrate on sounding out words or cutting out geometric patterns, most teachers and administrators cannot simply ignore the conflict in Iraq. They recognize that many children have either had some exposure to television reports or have heard comments from parents or classmates.

Katherine James, the principal at the 360-student Shepherd Elementary School in the District of Columbia said she was impressed by how "sane" and "appropriate" the questions from a group of 3rd graders were when she recently taught a lesson on the school's emergency procedures.

"It seemed that most of the children in the group had a sense that something was going on," Ms. James said. "They are not dummies. In fact, they are quite articulate."

Two of the pupils, she added, even asked if they could serve on the school's safety committee.

Other administrators, particularly those on the East Coast, say that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, children in their schools seem more aware of tragedy and potential danger.

"This is the world that they know," said Lorraine Lotowycz, the principal at Hamilton School, a public pre-K-3 school in Bridgewater, N.J. The school, which serves 400 students, has canceled field trips farther than 15 miles away, she said, and "there's a great deal of fear about going into New York City"—about twice that distance.

While educators might be able to turn class-time questions about Iraq into a lesson on geography, they point out that it's what children hear outside class that might make them fearful.

"We're going to see it on the playground, in the lunchroom, when children have downtime," Ms. Lotowycz said.

Experts emphasize that adults should not expect young children to understand the events in the same way older ones might.

Children as young as 3 and 4 often combine what they might hear about the current war between a U.S.-led coalition and Iraq with information from history, fantasy story lines, and even their own imaginations, said Judith Myers-Walls, a child-development specialist at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.

"They often know pieces, but they put things together in a very strange way," she said.

For example, after Sept. 11, Ms. Myers-Walls said she heard about a little boy who was nervous about "hijakers on the river."

"He didn't know about hijakers, but he knew about kayakers," she said.

Young children, she said, will often talk about the events and certain facts as if they were telling a story, but they "don't have the same emotions" about those events as adults would.

Sensing Adult Fears

In fact, experts say that if children seem frightened by what they are hearing, it's likely that they are picking up those fears from the adults around them.

Sydney G. Clemens, a San Francisco-based consultant on early-childhood education who has studied children's reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said children easily read adults' body language and can "smell the changes."

Once children reach the level of 1st through 3rd grade, they are a little more able to understand the geography involved and can study globes and maps.

Ms. Clemens said that children as young as 3 should be allowed to talk about the war, but that it's often wise to hold the discussions in smaller groups. Instead of correcting the children's factual errors, teachers can then say what they think is happening, while also emphasizing that adults are responsible for caring for them.

But experts widely agree that children of any age—and adults, too, for that matter—should not be allowed to watch round-the-clock TV coverage of the war.

Elementary principals said last week that, for the most part, children were not watching television—especially live reports—in class. In a few cases, principals said that teachers of the upper-elementary grades might show a clip if they had reviewed it first.

One of the toughest concepts for children to understand is how adults can be fighting a war when children are usually told to resolve their problems peaceably, said Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

"There needs to be the message that everyone is trying to stop the fighting soon," she said.

Expressing Themselves

For preschool-age children, drawing pictures can be one of the best outlets for expressing their feelings, child-development scholars say. Using a classroom play area to incorporate medical kits or uniforms of nurses or emergency personnel can also be a way for young children to act out some of the images they might associate with the news events.

Teachers in preschool and primary-grade classrooms should spend extra time observing their students, Ms. Hyson said. While acting out battles is not unusual, she said that teachers should be concerned if children seem "overly obsessed with it."

Meanwhile, children in the 2nd grade and beyond can learn facts about Iraq, Kuwait, and other countries they might be hearing about. Writing letters to men and women in the armed forces or to Iraqi children can also be a way to blend information about current events into a language arts lesson.

Differences in students' opinions about the war—if they are discussed in class—can also be turned into something positive.

"One of the real lessons we can give kids is how do you deal with someone who doesn't agree with you," Ms. Myers-Walls said.

Showing support for the U.S. troops is one way to find common ground.

In Stamford, Conn., last week, pupils at Newfield Elementary School joined with local World War II veterans to plant a red, white, and blue garden.

The project, organized by the Weekly Reader, was designed to help children feel "empowered" through volunteering, said Mia Toschi, a spokeswoman for the classroom magazine.

"I think so many people feel powerless right now," she said.

Some elementary students are even participating in demonstrations as a way of expressing their feelings about the war.

On the first day of the war, two 5th grade classes from Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School in San Francisco stood outside their school with banners to protest the war, as well as district budget cuts. Principal Nancy Sarraga said one teacher had the full support of her students' parents. In the other class, she said, all the students felt strongly about making the signs and protesting.

Ms. Sarraga said she was not entirely comfortable with the protest, and does not feel as if children that age have the "developmental capacity" to understand fully what they are doing.

Still, she said, she respected the desires of her students, many of whom come from war-torn countries and are taught about resolving conflicts without violence.

"The children that go to this school are taught critical-thinking skills about making choices about their future," Ms. Sarraga said. "Their feeling about the war was certainly an extension of that."

Ms. Myers-Walls of Purdue said she didn't see a problem with children's involvement in protests or rallies as long as they are the ones who initiate it.

Slogans can also be misunderstood by young children, who tend to hear words literally, she added. After the first Gulf War, she said, one little boy thought the war had occurred because some leaders wanted to "use blood for oil."

A Positive Spin

The Weekly Reader, which reaches 60,000 classrooms, is a source that many educators are using. The magazine follows strict guidelines about the images and details it provides.

"In any of the issues, we are choosing not to show soldiers with rifles. Maybe we'll show them giving out humanitarian aid," said Ms. Toschi. "It's not that we're trying to paint a rosy picture here, but we're trying to be as positive as we can."

One topic being addressed, she said, is the future rebuilding of Iraq.

Editions of the publication meant for children below 4th grade don't even mention the war.

At Kleven Boston Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga., a school of about 850 children north of Atlanta, Principal Mary Raley said last week that children had not yet asked a lot of questions about the war. But she expects that to change if 3rd grade teacher Christian Kirby, who is also a sergeant in the Army Air National Guard, is called into service. "If he gets called up, it will become more of an issue," Ms. Raley said.

Some principals were relieved that their schools were closed for spring break just as the bombing raids over Baghdad began. The vacation, administrators said, gave parents a greater chance to hear and respond to their children's concerns.

Others say they don't want to dodge difficult questions, but they also don't want to give more information than is necessary.

"Our teachers answer the questions, but they don't elaborate on them," Ms. Raley said. "Then we let the parents know the child had a question so they can finish filling them in."

Ms. James, the District of Columbia principal, found that children can also indicate when they've heard enough.

As she was talking to a class of 3rd graders about the war, "one little girl asked if we could talk about something else," she said. "I said of course we could."

Vol. 22, Issue 29, Pages 1,18

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