By Lauren Starnes, Ed.D., author of Big Conversations with Little Children: Addressing Questions, Worries, and Fears
To work with young children means to always expect the unexpected question at the unexpected time. As young children’s world becomes increasingly saturated by media, it is inevitable that they will overhear adult topics and have questions about them. How can you and your teaching staff be prepared for such questions?
First, remember that when young children ask big questions or make statements about adult topics, this is a measure of trust. The child is trusting you to be a safe place and to have an answer to a question that has elicited curiosity or anxiety. When children make such statements, always affirm that you welcome their questions.
Child: I saw kids died at that school. Did kids die?
Teacher: Thank you for trusting me with that question. You can always talk to me.
Second, respond with open-ended questions of your own. You may ask where children heard a specific word, what they mean by the question, or what they already know or think. This allows you to gauge children’s background knowledge and give you more information about what exactly they’re asking.
Teacher: What kids are you talking about? Can you tell me more about what you are asking?
Child: I saw on TV. Somebody shooted [sic] kids at a school. The TV said kids died and got shooted [sic]. Did they die, Mr. Hawk?
Third, answer the question in simple, matter-of-fact, and age-appropriate language. Do not provide detail. Keep your answers simple, to the point, and broad.
Teacher: Yes, what you saw on TV is true. Some kids did die that day.
Fourth, ask about children’s emotions. As an educator addressed with big questions, answer simply and then turn your focus to being an emotional support. Help children label how they’re feeling and suggest age-appropriate ways to navigate these emotions. Also reiterate to the child the safety and support that was or is present.
Teacher: While a sad thing happened, I need you to know that there were lots of helpers that day. There are still a lot of helpers helping. How does this make you feel?
Child: I’m sad for the kids.
Teacher: I am sad for the kids too. Would you like a hug? It also might make us feel better to go dance to some music to dance our feelings out. How does that sound?
Lastly, partner with families. Share with families what was asked, what your response was, how children identified their feelings, and what you suggested. When available, provide resources so families can continue the conversation.
Teacher: Dad, may I speak with you in the hallway a brief moment? [once away from children:] Today, Ava asked me a question about children being shot at a school. She said she saw something on TV and wanted to know if it was true that children died. I affirmed her question, let her know she could always speak with me, and then I did answer her simply that yes, children did die. I then turned the conversation to her feelings and reminded her that while this was a sad event that there were lots of helpers supporting the community. She wanted a hug and then we put on some upbeat music and danced. She has not brought this back up. I wanted you and your family to be aware that she asked this today. I do have a resource available if you would like a copy in case she asks more questions at home.
These steps are difficult to implement without practice. As a staff, consider doing some guided role play. Have one staff member act as a child and have another act as a teacher who gets surprised by a big question.
Focus intently on how to ask clarifying questions before answering, how to give high-level general responses (even if the response is saying I don’t know why that happened), and then focusing on children’s emotions. Practice leaving ample think-time for children to respond and honoring a pause in the conversation.
Consider family topics that may surface, such as miscarriage, new baby, or divorce, and more worldly topics, such as gun violence, natural disasters, and family structure. Talk openly as a staff about how you will manage your own emotions when addressing big questions and when to involve other members of the school community as partners.
For more information, check out my book Big Conversations with Little Children.
Early childhood education expert Dr. Lauren Starnes has completed doctoral studies in both child development and educational leadership. She currently holds the position of Chief Academic Officer of Goddard Schools, where she is responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of the curriculum, educational programming, assessment, and accreditation achievement for the nearly 600 Goddard Schools across the US. Previously, she was the vice president of early childhood education for Primrose School Franchising Company, where she supported curriculum development, implementation, and evaluation. She also served as the company’s executive director of professional development, leading and facilitating instructor-led and eLearning professional development for all stakeholders in the over 420 Primrose Schools. Prior to that she led the early childhood education department for a private education company, authoring their proprietary early childhood curriculum and leading professional development creation and delivery. Lauren has worked at every level of early childhood education. While she began her formal career teaching at the university level, she has prior experience teaching within preschools, consulting and serving as a support professional for children with autism, and serving as an embedded instructional coach for preschool teachers. She has worked as a school principal for multiple schools and remains actively involved as a voice for early childhood education in various professional associations. When not working, Lauren enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and cheering on her two sons in sports. She lives in Marietta, Georgia, near Atlanta.
Lauren is the author of Big Conversations with Little Children.
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This is such an important and timely subject. I’m glad that you mention dance as one way to help children express and process their feelings!