Photo by Jessica Lucia
A week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, we awoke to the news that all of Belgium was on high alert and Brussels was in lockdown, with subways, malls, public markets, and schools all closed and residents advised to stay home.
Although a recent poll revealed that 83 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is likely in the near future, most of us living on this side of the Atlantic continued our usual activities, worrying more about Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas shopping than about terrorists.
But what about our children?
But what were our children thinking and feeling?
In families with a direct tie to Paris or Brussels, even the youngest children knew something was terribly wrong. They could feel it in the air.
It was in the tension in people’s faces and voices, in the way their parents were glued to the news, their attention scattered, their tempers short, their usual rules relaxed or more strictly enforced. It’s hard to keep a secret in this global village of ours, where news is constantly available and social media connect us all.
And children who have links to Europe may not be the only ones affected. If you’re listening to the news or even discussing the possibilities of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil while your children are present, your child may react.
Terrorist attacks, riots, shootings, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters create a sense of helplessness in everyone, and children are particularly vulnerable because they depend on the adults around them to make them feel safe. Their ability to recover is intimately connected to their family’s sense of well-being and the ability of their families and teachers to comfort and reassure them.
How do we know when children are upset?
Some children react right away; others need weeks to show their fear, anger, and sadness. Some bounce back relatively quickly; others take a long time. Boys tend to recover more slowly and act more aggressively; girls express their feelings in words and ask more questions.
Certain children have a particularly hard time and need special attention:
- Children who are directly affected by the event or very close to it
- Children who are very sensitive
- Children already struggling with stress
- Children who’ve experienced previous losses
- Children who were barely coping before
- Children whose behavior was already out of control.
Children five years and under may cry, whine, throw tantrums, or fear strangers. They may want to stay home, cling to their parents and favorite objects, and dread new situations. They may eat or sleep badly and regress into behaviors they used when they were younger, like thumbsucking or having toilet accidents.
School-age children may also become aggressive, disruptive, angry, and irritable and have trouble paying attention. Or they may withdraw and feel depressed or anxious. Children who are surrounded by angry people looking for revenge may respond angrily to their peers.
In all of these cases, challenging behavior is often the result.
How can we help the children?
What can we do to help our children feel safe? And what can teachers do to help children and parents when any catastrophic event takes place?
You can certainly provide parents with information. They may not be aware of what’s developmentally appropriate for their child to know or how much he can understand. Although watching the news and talking to others may alleviate their own anxiety, they probably don’t realize the impact it has on their child. Gently help parents to understand the need to limit what they watch and talk about when their child is present.
Families also need to know how to recognize their child’s anxiety and what they can do to assuage it.
Jim Greenman tells us that children want to know three things:
- Will I be okay?
- Will you be okay?
- Will everyone I care about be okay?”
Remind parents that their primary job is to let their children know that they will take care of them and keep them safe. Parents are like the flight attendants on a turbulent flight. If they continue to walk calmly down the aisles, politely serving drinks and snacks, the passengers feel safe. Their relaxed demeanor communicates that the turbulence may be uncomfortable but it isn’t dangerous. When parents are calm and demonstrate coping skills, children feel more secure and may even imitate them. (Teachers should also keep this in mind.)
Talking about feelings
Children need a chance to ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings. But they will take their cue from the adults they trust. If we don’t speak, they will conclude that the events were too dangerous to touch. They may hide their feelings or think something is wrong with them for feeling as they do. They won’t have the courage to ask us questions or tell us how they feel.
If a child’s behavior at home has changed, suggest that parents find out what the child knows (or thinks he knows) and base their replies on what he says. (If a child is behaving differently at school or daycare, teachers should gently question him in the same way.) Diane E. Levin suggests, “Answer questions and clear up misconceptions, but don’t try to give children all the information available. . . . The best guide is to follow the child’s lead, giving small pieces of information at a time and seeing how the child responds before deciding what to say next.”
Parents (and teachers) need to listen calmly and without judging and validate the child’s feelings. Make it clear that it’s normal to feel upset or angry. Children don’t have to think their parent or teacher has all the answers, but they need to feel they’re understood, that their concerns are valued, and that the grownups in their lives will keep them safe.
Caring adults should emphasize children’s strengths and remind them of how they’ve coped with problems in the past. It’s also reassuring when adults show that they’re all right even if they feel sad or worried or angry. Children who see that their parents and teachers can handle the situation are more likely to handle it, too.
Here is an example of how one parent helped his six-year-old son deal with what happened in Paris.
Play as therapy
Play is one of the best ways for children to express what they feel and move toward recovery. It is normal and therapeutic for them to recreate the same scenes over and over—it helps them to gain control of the situation. They want to be big and strong; they want to be heroes who save the world; and sometimes they even want to be villains. Play is how they acquire this power.
Look and listen carefully so that you can support their efforts. Talk with them about what they’re doing and create opportunities for them to identify with the people who helped—firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and technicians.
Drawing and writing are also extremely effective ways for children to deal with their feelings. And you can help them to release tension by planning lots of physical activity and tactile play with sand, water, or play dough.
Routines and activities
When life feels insecure and unpredictable, children need routine. Consistency brings comfort and the sense that everyday things haven’t changed. Both teachers and parents can calm everyone’s nerves by slowing things down, playing quiet music, and speaking in a calm voice, but as soon as possible they should return to normal activities.
Some children will find it hard to make choices, but others will need choices to feel more in control. Some will need lots of hugs, hand holding, and chances to sit on your lap; others will find it hard to meet demands. Be sensitive to what each child needs and adjust activities accordingly.
When there is so much anger and pain, children need positive ways to express their feelings. Parents and teachers can remind them that there are many adults working to protect them and they can help by making cookies, writing letters, or drawing pictures for the rescue workers, the police—or the President or the Mayor. These activities direct negative energy constructively and offer a sense that one person can make a difference.
When you work together, children, families, and teachers all benefit, and a deep sense of community is likely to emerge.
What do you think?
Are the children around you showing signs that they’re upset by the Paris terrorist attacks and the lockdown in Brussels? How are you handling this situation? Have you talked with them, and what did you say? Have you talked with their parents? We’d like to hear about your experience.
These resources can help:
Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Alicia F. Lieberman, & Patricia Van Horn. After a crisis: Helping young children heal. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Diane E. Levin. When the world is a dangerous place. Educational Leadership.
Paul Myers. Tips to help children cope with disasters. Teaching Young Children.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Parent tips for helping preschool-age children after disasters.
NAEYC. Coping with violence. A list of resources.
Tragic events. The Fred Rogers Company.
Why is everyone talking about executive function?
To begin with, it’s at the heart of self-regulation—that is, our ability to consciously control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. When it comes to readying children for school and helping them to succeed in both the social and the academic realms, executive function is even more important than IQ.
And according to a study of 1000 children whom researchers followed from birth to age 32, good self-regulation creates healthier, wealthier, and more law-abiding people, whereas poor self-regulation leads to trouble paying attention, following directions, and building and maintaining positive relationships.
So what exactly is executive function?
There are three core executive functions:
- Working memory is the ability to keep information in our minds for a short period while we work with it.
- Cognitive or mental flexibility permits us to shift our focus, adjust to new demands, information, and priorities, fix mistakes, and come up with alternative solutions to problems.
- Inhibitory control is the capacity to control our impulses and think before we act, or in the words of neuroscientist Adele Diamond, “to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.”
By working together, these three executive functions lay the foundation for the higher order skills of planning, reasoning, and problem solving.
How do children learn these skills?
Children begin to acquire executive function skills in infancy (think of the baby soothing herself with her thumb or pacifier), and early childhood is an especially fertile period for developing them. We can see this happening before our eyes as toddlers and preschoolers learn to share, wait for a turn, understand rules and directions, calm themselves, and empathize.
But executive functions don’t develop automatically. They depend on the external guidance and support of parents and teachers. By modeling self-regulation ourselves and by providing warm, sensitive, and responsive care, plentiful opportunities to practice self-regulation, scaffolding children’s learning so that they can do what we ask, and reinforcing effort, persistence, and focus, we can help their executive functions to become stronger and stronger. At the same time we are building resilience.
Children who lack these skills need our support the most. Living with toxic stress—for example with neglect, maltreatment, violence, caregiver mental illness, or poverty—disrupts children’s brain development and often robs them of the chance to develop their executive functions. But research shows that children with poor self-regulation actually make the largest gains when they have our support and guidance.
It’s important to improve these skills early because executive function problems grow over time. Diamond says that increasing children’s executive function could even help to close the achievement gap in school and health.
How can teachers enhance executive function?
Several curricula (PATHS, Chicago School Readiness Project, Tools of the Mind, Montessori) show signs of improving children’s executive function, but the research evidence is still weak. However, it is very clear that lots of practice is imperative. Here are some tips to use in your own classroom:
- Work on developing secure relationships with the children you care for. A warm, sensitive, and responsive relationship with a child is the basis for all positive change.
- Create a stimulating and well organized classroom environment with consistent rules. Minimize distractions, remove things that trigger impulsive behavior, and provide reminders and memory aids (such as a picture of an ear to help children listen). With this assistance, children can practice inhibiting their own impulses and following your directions instead.
- Bear in mind that negative emotions such as anger, depression, stress, frustration, and loneliness dispose us to pay less attention, respond impulsively, and even act aggressively. Children having a hard time at home need extra support, monitoring, and guidance; and when they behave inappropriately, a calm, warm response is likely to be more effective than a harsh one.
- Explain the reasons behind your actions and decisions. This enables children to internalize the message.
- Give one direction at a time.
- To help children calm themselves when they’re upset, teach them to recognize the clues their body gives them. Then teach them the turtle position (cross your arms, wrap them around your body, take a deep breath, and then plan how to respond) and/or belly breathing (lie on your back with a small stuffed animal on your belly, and breathe slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth, which rocks the animal). (If you have no stuffed animal, you can put your hands on your tummy.)
- Teach children self-talk. To help them act appropriately, they can quietly tell themselves what to do or count to 10 forwards or backwards, either out loud or in their heads. This helps them to think more rationally.
- Tell stories, and have children tell them, too. Write them down or ask the children to illustrate them, and discuss the feelings in them.
- Schedule lots of time for pretend play, and ask the children to make a plan for what they intend to do. Supervise and ask questions about what they’re doing.
- Use games and songs that require children to pay attention and remember the rules: Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, memory, walking on a line, follow the leader, freeze dancing, dancing to fast and slow music, singing loud and soft, “Head and Shoulder, Knees and Toes,” “BINGO,” “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs,” etc. Puzzles and matching and sorting games (by size, color, shape) also help develop executive function. When children have mastered a game or a song, tweak it to challenge them more, e.g., in Simon Says, change the cue to follow Simon.
- For more ideas, see Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence by the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University; the November 2014 issue of Zero to Three; and this video on executive function by Alberta Family Wellness.
How many of these strategies do you use in your classroom? Have you seen any improvement in the children’s self-control? How hard is it for you to model self-regulation? What do you do to keep your cool when the going gets tough?
We’re back! We’ve been away far too long, working on other projects. Barbara has been traveling, giving keynotes and workshops in New York City, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Dallas, Pennsylvania, New Brunswick, and—lucky Barbara—in Auckland, New Zealand. Where is she going next? Check out her upcoming gigs here.
Barbara also presented a webinar called “Out of Control Children: A Team Approach for Early Educators and Families” for Early Childhood Investigations. If you weren’t one of the more than 4000 people who signed up, you can access the webinar here.
Miss Night’s marvelous musings
Now that we’re blogging again, we’ll share some of the exciting new research and strategies we discovered while we were writing.
First of all, we want to alert you to two powerful blog posts published this winter. You may have seen at least one of them because it went viral, so far receiving more than 2 million views, 1000 comments, 100 requests to share it in school and agency newsletters, and 6 translations. The author is Amy Murray, better known as Miss Night, who in real life is the director of early childhood education at the Calgary French & International School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Her post, “Dear Parent: About THAT kid…,” appeared on November 10, 2014. It begins:
“I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting shoving pinching scratching maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block centre because blocks are not for throwing. The one who climbed over the playground fence right exactly as I was telling her to stop. The one who poured his neighbour’s milk onto the floor in a fit of anger. On purpose. While I was watching. And then, when I asked him to clean it up, emptied the ENTIRE paper towel dispenser. On purpose. While I was watching. The one who dropped the REAL ACTUAL F-word in gym class.”
To read the rest, click here:
Inspired by Miss Night
The second powerful post comes from a parent—one who identified herself as “that” parent. Using her own experience in British Columbia as a springboard, Karen Copeland created a blog and founded a group called Champions for Community Mental Wellness, whose mission is to educate others about the challenges faced by the families of children with mental health problems.
On November 15, 2014, Copeland posted her reaction to Miss Night’s blog, calling it “I Am ‘that’ parent.” It begins:
“Dear professionals: You know me, I am the one who asks questions. The one who seems like she is always asking for information. The one who makes suggestions on the IEP, or seems to go on and on and on about the concerns she has about her son. The one who will turn a 15 minute scheduled meeting into 45 minutes. The one who does not hesitate to let you know when things are not going well for her child. The one who can get emotional and (unintentionally) make everyone feel yucky. The one who requests documentation and wants to look at her child’s file. The one who says she wants goals to be more specific. The one who just doesn’t seem to go away and leave you alone to do your job. The one who keeps her own file.”
To see more, click here.
What do you think of these posts? Do they resonate with you? What have you learned from them? Have parents ever asked you questions like these? How do you reply? What would you like to say?