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Early Educators Help Children Navigate Fears of Violence, Times of Protest

School-Shooting-youth-protest-blog.jpgThe Creative Learning Center in Miami is about 55 miles south of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three staff members were shot to death in February.

In the days after the shooting, the center, which educates children ages 2 to 6, had to deal with frequent lockdowns of schools in the area. Emilu Alvarez, the director of the school, brought her staff together to designate safe zones in every classroom. Then she had to come up with an age-appropriate way to tell children how to prepare if the school faced a threat. 

"I went into all the rooms one by one and told the children the story of how a rabbit hides in a hole," Alvarez said in an email. "I brought a puppet with me. I told them that Ms. Emi gets upset if someone she does not know comes into our school and does not go to the office, so in order to protect them if I ever say, 'Rabbit, rabbit find a hole,' their teachers will lock the door and take them to their safe place." 

The threats raised by the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High and the continuing conversations about gun violence and protests have filtered down to even the youngest children. Teachers are having to think about how to respond to young childrens' anxieties and questions.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

How to mitigate childhood trauma is something the head of the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children, or FLAEYC, had been grappling with long before the Stoneman Douglas tragedy. FLAEYC Executive Director Chris Duggan said that during the group's annual conference, planned for September, one day will be set aside to discuss trauma-informed care.

"We're thinking about it from the perspective of understanding that the children are experiencing trauma from all different perspectives," said Duggan. "How do we provide child care in a way that nurtures the children, supports the families, supports the teachers?"

Duggan stresses that this trauma doesn't just come from incidents like Parkland but from things like domestic violence in the home or natural disasters such as hurricanes.

"Our broader perspective is how do we as a community help our families and children and caregivers handle this, whatever it is, because they come every day," said Duggan. "We all have to be ready because you never know what day it's going to be, [or] what it's going to be."

Gege Kreischer, an early-childhood program consultant and FLAEYC's vice president of organizational development, has been working in early-childhood education for 45 years. She says some people believe traumatic events go over the heads of young children, but that's not true.

"Trust me, they're sponges," said Kreischer. "They may not understand the details and the technical pieces of something like Parkland. But they are absorbing the stress. They are absorbing the fear, and they are absorbing the trauma that their families and communities are going through."

'Am I Going to Be Okay?'

Ruby Velasco, a mental health specialist at the nonprofit Child360 in Los Angeles, agreed with Kreischer's point. She said that teachers need to be mindful of what they talk about when they are around young students. Child360, formerly called Los Angeles Universal Preschool, supports high-quality early-learning programs. 

"It's very important to think about the energy you bring into the classroom, and its very important to think about what you're discussing," Velasco said. Educators should also pay attention if children have questions about what they may be seeing or hearing around them—but it's important to let parents know about the topics their children might be bringing up. 

"The most important thing is for [teachers] to create that sense of safety by validating the child in a kid-friendly way," Velasco said.

Some educators have created ways for children to particpate in social activities in an age-appropriate manner. Abigail Miller, the director of elementary/middle school programs for Cambridge Montessori School in Massachusetts, said her school planned a "peace march" on March 14, the day that many students across the country walked out of school to protest gun violence. That day ended up being a snow day, so the school held another short event on March 23, the day before another set of rallies planned nationwide. 

"The teachers have been talking to the kids a lot at the lower levels about how they can make a better world, person by person, how their words count, how their actions count," Miller said. The school-based event offers an opportunity to demonstrate the school's beliefs in peace and diversity, she said. 

Most of all, young children want reassurance, said Sarah Erdman, the lead teacher for the 3- and 4-year-old classroom at F.B. Meekins Cooperative Preschool in Vienna, Va. and a lead volunteer with Be SMART for Kids, an organization that advocates for gun safety. 

"At the core of every question they're asking is, 'But what about me, am I going to be OK?'" Erdman said. And to that, Erdman says she would tell young children that her job is to keep them safe. "That's answering that core question," she said. "There will always be someone to take care of you." 

Associate Editor Christina A. Samuels contributed to this blog post.

 Photo: Nine year-old Daisy Simard, right, is joined by Tanner McPherson, 10, during a protest in Los Angeles on March 11. The student-activist group "No Guns LA" held a rally to call for stricter gun control laws.—Richard Vogel/AP

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