Helping Children Navigate Global Tragedy
This article appears in the spring 2018 Issue of Montessori Life Magazine. Read the full magazine online. (Members Only)
Naming all the tragedies in the world is, sadly, an impossible task. When and how do we talk about tragic events in our classrooms? This is a question every teacher has grappled with. Our classrooms are beautiful, peaceful havens for our students. And yet, our students do not exist solely within these classrooms. Our schools exist in the context of a world that is both very much the same and very, very different from the one Dr. Montessori saw as being in need of a peaceful revolution through education.
What is the same? The existence of war, slavery, genocide, oppression, racism, misogyny, and other evils that have plagued humanity throughout history. What is different? We are now bombarded with information every waking moment, with various media competing aggressively for our attention and infiltrating the most personal and private of moments. We learn about events immediately after they happen or, in some cases, as they are still happening. While the actual statistics are nowhere near as dire as they feel, information that once arrived days or weeks after the fact is now accessible almost in real time, often accompanied by live (and sometimes bloody) footage. These messages compete for our attention and are carefully curated to cause powerful emotional reactions—to get us hooked, if you will. They are designed to engage us and to engender outrage, anger, and fear (Beckett & Deuze, 2016).
Because we experience the trauma of global tragedy in a much more immediate and unfiltered way than we used to, it is more difficult for us to shield ourselves and our children from the barrage of sensationalized and politicized images flooding our environment. We can try to protect children by filtering out media messaging—for example, by turning off the news at home and in the car. What we cannot filter out is the ubiquitousness of the 24-hour news cycle on screens in public places, like restaurants, waiting rooms, and stores, and in other people’s homes. We also have very little control over what our children see online. Many children, especially adolescents, have access to information most parents don’t even know about. While we can and should try to filter our children’s media exposure, it is unrealistic to believe we can protect them from it altogether. It thus becomes our responsibility as parents and as teachers to moderate what children experience—in other words, to help them make sense of and to contextualize what they are seeing or hearing. We know that children and adolescents construct themselves based on their experiences and their environment. Given that their environment is saturated with media messages, it behooves us to actively support their ability to deconstruct media messages and make sense of the actual events, so they can develop resilience and empathic responses.
How to Address Global Tragedy?
Following the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015, Montessori teachers began an intense dialogue via social media. If we were to honor those killed in Paris in our classrooms and on our social media feeds, were we not also obligated to honor those killed in Beirut, Egypt, and Nigeria during the same time frame? If the children did not know about these incidents, was it our place to tell them? How could we deal with these issues in our classrooms without adding to the fear and anxiety children already felt?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and each answer is dependent on many variables—including the plane of development with which we are working and whether students in our classes were directly or indirectly affected. The conversation has continued over the years, with each new incident bringing us more awareness of what it means to live as a global community. In addition to my Montessori training, I have a degree in communications, and, as such, I take a strong interest in how messaging affects children. I also take to heart Dr. Montessori’s warning about how easily a child can substitute the adult personality for his or her own (1936/1966, p. 91): An adult can substitute himself for a child by acting in his place, but also by subtly imposing his own will, substituting it for that of the child. When this happens it is no longer the child that acts but the adult working through the child.
During the aftermath of the Paris attack, in response to our conversations, I began to compile a list of articles to share with my own friends and colleagues. My goal in doing so was to help teachers and parents find answers to the questions that kept coming up after each incident, and to help parents and teachers support children and adolescents in processing traumatic events. To achieve this, I looked for articles that:
- Were Montessori-compatible in that they had at their center the experience of the child, aligned with our understanding of the planes of development, and spoke to the human tendencies toward orientation, gregariousness, order, communication, exploration, and self-perfection;
- Were parent-friendly in that they were easy to read and digest, offered practical advice, and did not put added pressure on parents to be more perfect or blame parents for not being able to control children’s media exposure;
- Were accurate from a child development and psychology perspective, and offered a realistic view of how media are produced and disseminated;
- Came from sources that are reasonably reputable and proactive in their management of other social issues;
- Put the onus on the adult, not the child, to create an environment in which resilience can be developed (in essence, furthering the spiritual preparation of the teacher).
In our own classrooms, we need to be the voice of reason, of sanity and unity, in the face of fear. We need to be careful that we are in a state of response not reaction. When we think about how to help our students manage their own emotional responses, it is essential first to be aware of our own response. What is it that arises in us in response to a given tragedy? What is it that makes those of us who are actively working for peace every day angry, scared, and divisive, and how do we manage those thoughts and emotions? How can we process that fear and anger before we enter our classrooms, so we can show our students how they can be catalysts in our work for peace?
It is my hope that these resources will help teachers and parents alike better support children through their experiences of tragedy and trauma. Below, I’ve listed the title of each resource and a shortened URL for easy reference, along with a brief annotation of and excerpt from the resource.
This post offers information about children’s typical responses to events that do not affect them personally as well as practical advice for parents.
In times of community or worldwide crisis, it’s easy to assume that young children don’t know what’s going on. But one thing’s for sure—children are very sensitive to how their parents feel. They’re keenly aware of the expressions on their parents’ faces and the tone of their voices.
"Terrorism and War: How to Talk to Children,” by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
This list offers advice on how to handle conversations around war and terror, and how to help children and adolescents to comprehend the events and develop resilience.
In today’s world, parents are faced with the challenge of explaining violence, terrorism, and war to children. Although difficult, these conversations are extremely important. They give parents an opportunity to help their children feel more secure and understand the world in which they live.
Starting with the awareness of our own responses, this listicle gives us 12 ways in which we can actively offer children and adolescents support. Though it was written in response to the 2015 Paris attacks, it is helpful for coping with many other tragedies.
Devastating incidents like this make us acutely aware that parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. We know our children need us to guide and support them, but it is hard to know what the right things are to say or do.
A list of links to specific articles within the NCTSN website that help adults understand the effects different kinds of events can have on children and adolescents, and what adults can do to reduce trauma and promote resilience. Some articles are available in Spanish.
A 30-second video, “5 Ways to Help Kids Deal with Disturbing News,” accompanies this article about the potential trauma of constant media exposure, especially when tragedy occurs. Addressed are appropriate responses, according to age group, roughly matching the first three planes of development.
If it bleeds, it leads. The old newsroom adage about milking stories for sensationalism seems truer than ever today. And with technology doing the heavy lifting— sending updates, tweets, posts, and breaking news alerts directly to our kids’ phones—we parents are often playing catchup.
This post offers 10 general tips for having conversations that will help children manage and accept catastrophic events and find hope again. It includes specific advice for each age group, roughly following the planes of development.
All kids are different. They need different information to feel safe, they look for a different level of detail, and they are impacted by different parts of the story. Nobody will know your children better than you do, so it’s important to manage the conversation based on who they are, what they already know, and what it means for them.
Jack M. Jose, principal of Gamble Montessori High School, in Cincinnati, OH, gives teachers 4 questions to guide student discussion. Although aimed primarily at Secondary teachers, this article also offers insight for parents and teachers of younger students.
What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy.
This is a cogent look at the short- and long-term effects on children of trauma caused by the experience of a disaster or ongoing trauma, such as war, and how to support their development of resilience.
According to the UN, young people, including children, are the largest group of people affected by disasters across the world. Over 100 million youth around the world are exposed to disasters each year.… I have studied how kids cope after disasters like Hurricane Katrina or major wildfires, and how children respond to ongoing trauma like the Gulf War. I’ve found that most kids will emerge from these experiences just fine. But for a small minority, the effects can linger for years.
“Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers,” by the National Association of School Psychologists
This article presents 7 tips to support children in dealing with the aftermath of violent events, along with a list of talking points to use that will reassure children while maintaining a realistic outlook.
High-profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.
Beckett, C. & Deuze, M. (September 5, 2016). On the Role of Emotion in the Future of Journalism. Social Media + Society, 2(3), 1–6. doi: 10.1177/2056305116662395
Montessori, M. (1936/1966). The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books.
About the Author
Andrea Lulka, MEd, has been a lead Casa and Middle School guide, played various roles in Toddler through Upper Elementary levels, worked in admissions and communications, and developed a curriculum for teacher education programs. Currently, she moderates the Montessori Teachers Facebook group, the largest online professional development and support group specifically and exclusively for Montessori teachers. She is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood).
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.