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For young children, current events can sometimes bleed off the headlines and into their imaginations. When that happens, scary news becomes something bigger and more immediate than it really is.
Whether it’s war, wildfires or a pandemic, these types of events can create challenging situations in early education. When’s the right time to talk about them, and how? What’s your first responsibility to children, when the headlines look grim?
How can you tell them things will be okay if you’re not even sure of that yourself?
If you're feeling a little intimidated, you're not alone. We’ll look at what you can do as an early educator to support children through scary news, and what best practice looks like on the day-to-day in your classroom.
But to start, we’ll look at why some current events can feel especially big and scary for young children.
Young children have a blurry boundary between what’s real and what’s not.
As we’ve explored before, pretend play is children’s key tool for explaining the unknowns in their world. Tamsin Grimmer, an Early Years educator, consultant and trainer, says that children’s capacity for fantasy kicks in around 18 months of age, and it’s common for them to keep that blurry boundary throughout all of early childhood.
“At three or four years old, children don’t fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, and they’ll remind you of that,” Tamsin says. “You’ll ask, ‘Are you pretending to be a doctor?’ And they’ll respond, ‘I am a doctor!’ because they’re method actors. To them, that pretend play is quite real.”
But the sense of fantasy that lets children embody a character in play can also make news headlines feel even scarier. To process headlines of a wildfire raging overseas, they might visualize it incinerating their favorite playground. Suddenly, that distant news becomes something larger and more immediate than it really is.
So when we’re helping children understand scary news, we’ve got to check our grown-up brains at the door. Little ones just can’t distance themselves from those scary headlines as well as you can.
In these situations, our first responsibility is to help children feel safe and reassured.
You can’t reason young children out of their fears.
Saying “Don’t worry, all this is happening far away,” isn’t reassuring, when young children can’t fully separate the real-life news from their magnifying imaginations. What matters most in these moments is how children are feeling.
So in times like this, you’ve got to highlight that it’s okay to feel scared.
“Being scared is a natural response. And we need children to learn that feeling that way is okay — there are times we all feel afraid, and there are things we can do about it, too,” Tamsin says.
You can’t stop children from feeling frightened. But you can make room for those feelings, and give them the tools they need to deal with their fears.
Here’s how that might look in the classroom:
If you’re feeling scared too, don’t hesitate to share that. But as we’ll get into down below, you still need to be able to keep your composure in front of children.
Moments like this can test the relationships you've built with parents. It’s especially important to work with parents as partners, to make sure you explore this scary news in a way that works for everyone.
As Tamsin explains, doing this is a balance of respecting families’ views, but also trusting your own instincts as an educator.
“Parents tend to choose child care based on what they know about you, and who you are. So if you’re able to show parents and caregivers how you might address these things, they’ll often trust your expertise and leadership. So it’s good to communicate your rationale for moments like this, and why you’re responding in your specific way,” she explains.
Here are three tips to help you coordinate these issues with parents, and make a plan to tackle scary news as a team:
If you’re looking for a great way to communicate with parents, Famly’s own platform comes with a messaging function that makes things easy. If you like, you can give it a look right here.
When you’re working with toddlers, you know things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, children might come to you with a tough question, before you’ve really had much time to prepare a good answer.
In that case, here’s what you can do:
Scary news isn’t just scary for children. If there’s an event that’s affecting the classroom, odds are you’re feeling it too.
Being scared is okay, and it’s healthy to share your own feelings with children. But in a situation like this, it’s also important that you can lead in a calm and composed way.
“We need to be modelling when we feel all sorts of ways, including being scared. However, you still need to do that in a calm and measured way, so you can help children co-regulate,” Tamsin says. “If you don’t feel you’ve got enough calm to share, you might not be the right person to be talking to children about that particular issue.”
Your biggest responsibility is to help children feel safe and secure. If you’re just not feeling composed enough to lead the conversation, talk to a colleague. Be open about how you’re feeling, and find your team member who’s best equipped to offer that calming reassurance to children.
When it comes to having this conversation, it’s worth thinking critically about how much info will really be helpful to children.
For example, at the time of this writing, there’s a war going on in Ukraine. Young children will likely hear about it, and be curious. But how much does a three-year-old, who might be oceans away from the conflict, need to know?
Tamsin says it’s enough to explain: “There is some fighting going on right now. People are getting hurt, and that makes a lot of people sad. But we will keep you safe.”
Explaining things on a general level, and breaking the issue down into children’s terms can help you keep your news brief simple. When our goal is keeping children feeling safe and comfortable, diving into the what-ifs and grisly details of any scary news stirs up our anxieties more than it keeps us informed.
There might be a lesson in there for our grown-up news habits, too.
To wrap it up, here is some best practice advice for discussing scary news with children:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.