When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.
It seems that the world has experienced many natural disasters this year. We have had raging wildfires in British Columbia, Alberta, and the western United States; devastating earthquakes in Mexico; severe flooding around the world, and an onslaught of hurricanes from Harvey and Irma to Maria. As we experience the effects of these disasters, either personally or through news stories and images, we must consider their impact on children. This certainly includes children who live in the affected areas, but children who are not personally affected may also have concerns as they become aware of the disasters and the damage they cause.
Children are extremely sensitive and, as such, are particularly vulnerable during disasters, tragedies, and periods of grief. They may experience changes in behavior that include separation anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, night terrors, fear, or depression. Adults need to be aware that during this time, children have special needs that should be attended to carefully. And while their world is anything but normal, we should try to keep their routines as normal as possible. If the school is open, ensure that children attend. They need to see their teachers and their friends, and they will benefit from having space to play and learn. Their intellectual and developmental needs haven’t changed, merely the situation they are in.
While adults often need to focus on rebuilding efforts as a way to keep busy and not dwell on what was lost, children need to feel safe, secure, and protected. They need attention and comfort from their families and trusted adult caregivers. It’s important that we concentrate on creating an environment that is physically and mentally safe for children. Using simple, direct language offers assurance in an uncertain time: “We are all safe now.” “We are all here together.” “I will protect you.”
The U.S. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has compiled a list of agencies that help during a disaster or that provide information for working with children who are victims of disasters, including two sources for talking to children about disasters.
You can access the list here: https://www.naeyc.org/newsroom/Resources_on_coping_with_disasters
Here are some Montessori tips for talking to children about disasters:
- Keep your words and discussion topics developmentally appropriate. Think about the child’s developmental stage. Up until age 6, children want to be able to name what happened. Elementary-age children want to know more about why it happened and will it happen again.
- Encourage children to talk about their experiences. Children gain control by being able to discuss their situations. Refrain from saying things like, “Don’t worry” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Children have valid worries and concerns, just like adults. Recognize their concerns and share your own, focusing on positive outcomes: “I was afraid, too, but the shelter was open and we’re all here together.”
- Remain calm. You may be nervous and worried as you seek shelter, but keeping your voice and demeanor composed will help the children find a sense of calm, too.
- Keep adult conversations away from young ears. Discuss adult-only topics and concerns after bedtime or when the children are at school. Hearing adult fears can compound their worry.
- Continue to observe important rituals such as eating meals together or having a story before bed. Even if you are only eating crackers and peanut butter, sharing a meal and conversation together is an important family routine that brings a sense of normalcy and cohesion.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Wednesday, October 4, 2017.