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How We Can Help our Littlest Learners in the Wake of Tragedy

How We Can Help our Littlest Learners in the Wake of Tragedy

Little girl hugging her father while holding a teddy bear

As a Jewish preschool director just an hour north of Parkland, FL, my office has been a buzz of activity after 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. As a shooting survivor, I am intimately aware of the aftermath of a shooting. As a mother and early childhood professional, I am also in tune with the fears and responsibilities that hold the same place in our hearts after a tragedy like this occurs. In my years of working with children and families, and in studying the early childhood brain - especially as it responds to trauma - I have learned a number of things.

First, take a deep breath.

Before addressing the needs of our children, we must take check in with ourselves.  Remind yourself that you are safe. Remind yourself that your children are safe. Right now, unless you are in the inner circle of the tragedy, you are OK.

Doctors, educators, and other well-meaning people advise parents not to expose children to violence on the TV or elsewhere. But, the truth is, that’s impossible unless you are raising your child in a dark, soundproof bubble. Children are aware of the world around them. PBS Parents states that “at every age and stage children are affected by what’s happening in the news, whether parents share the information or shield them from it – because the news is everywhere.”  Children may not process the stimuli the same way as adults, but they can hear the TV in the restaurant, they see the photos on the front pages of the magazines in the check-out line at the grocery. They see the shock and the tears on the adult faces around them. Of course, reducing exposure to acts of violence is something we should all do, but even the children of the most vigilant parents will experience the ripple effect of tragedy. 

What can we do as parents?

Assure our children that they are safe. One of the most important things for healthy development is for children to feel safe and secure.  Point out the things we do every day to keep them safe. Narrate the things in your day that positively affect your child’s safety:

  • “You are buckled into your car seat.”
  • “Mommy is dropping you off in your classroom with Miss Rachel. She is going to take care of you today.” 
  • “You are holding Daddy’s hand while we cross the street. We are helping keep each other safe.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer advises parents to scale conversations about violence to a child’s age and maturity level. “Small children do not need long explanations about the social and psychological ramifications of gun violence erupting in our society.” It is often enough to explain to children that a scary thing happened and that there are many “helpers” who are helping the people who are sad. Providing toys and art materials for children to express their feelings is a good way for parents and caregivers to monitor a child’s processing of an event.  Continuing regular routines and schedules help maintain a sense of security and control over their environment.

I often remind the teachers in my preschool and the parents of our students that these little ones have been on this earth less than the fingers on one hand. It is our job to protect them, to love them, and to assure them that we are their helpers.

The sentences above are the last I wrote before...

I received a call on my cell. It was the assistant principal at my son’s middle school. The recorded call alerted parents that a student threatened to shoot up the school. The student wanted to be like the gunman in Parkland. The call assured parents that the student was in custody and that all students were safe. I left my computer, the article, my desk, my preschool and went to pick up my son.

He was scared. He didn't know if he wants to go to school the next day.

I share this because everything I write, I practice. In the middle of writing this piece, I had to put everything I profess into action. Just an hour ago, I sat with my 12-year-old son, listening to him explain how his PE coach said that he would keep his students safe, no matter what: “Coach said that he would shove us all in the equipment closet if he had to.” I assured my little boy that his coach would do everything he could to keep him safe.

I kissed him. I hugged him. “Baby,” I said, “There are some bad people in the world. And, that can be scary. But, there are more good people. I promise.”

Tammy Kaiser is an educational neuroscientist, preschool director, mother, and shooting survivor. Author of Diameter of the Bullet, Kaiser currently serves as the director of the early childhood learning center at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, FL. 

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