My primary pupils were upset by TV pictures of the tsunami. How can I talk about such a disaster without alarming or upsetting them?

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Ted says

Disasters of this kind are traumatic for young people, especially when they see children like themselves facing the loss of their parents. Television images are especially powerful. Some children may appear to be unaffected, but few will be unmoved, so it is worth talking about what has happened.

Ron King, writing about infant schools in his book All Things Bright and Beautiful?, says teachers often avoid talking about sad topics. But grief is a natural process, helping people cope with what might otherwise be unmanageable. However, grieving for those we do not know personally has to be done in moderation, or it can become a maudlin self-indulgence. You can talk about disasters generally that have revealed our vulnerability to the forces of nature.

It is important to look for positives, rather than concentrate on death and destruction. Discuss the good that can follow, though not erase, the tragedy: countries uniting to help, rebuilding communities, putting in place an early warning system. Be prepared for some tough questions. Why did it happen? How can there be a God if whole areas are wiped out? What can we do to help?

This last question is important, because children have a huge sense of impotence. Adults can send a cheque, mobilise armies of activists.

Children, though, can feel helpless, so perhaps they could raise money for a relief charity, find out more about countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, or link with a school.

You say

Lesson on responsibility

I thought long and hard about how to deal with this sensitive subject with my Year 6 class. I didn't want them to be upset but I knew it was my responsibility to address the issue.

Using the whiteboard, we accessed a CBBC Newsround site which gives a geographical explanation of how the tsunami happened. The class got some good discussion out of it. We said a prayer for those affected and held a school council meeting to discuss ways of helping. They decided to do household chores for small payments. It is helping them gain a sense of responsibility, and realise that hard work and sacrifice are sometimes required to help others.

Jodie Parker, Wolverhampton

Be open and offer reassurance

Acknowledgement is the first thing you need to do, followed by a matter-of-fact description of why it happened. Children want to be reassured that it will not happen here, to them or to their families.

You can also express your own sadness, which will help them understand some of what they might be feeling themselves. It may help them to come together in a special assembly and observe a silence. Children can then see that everyone is aware of the disaster; a communal demonstration of concern and sadness can be helpful for children and adults.

Children often show a spontaneous desire to help and it is good for them to do something practical, especially if it is their own ideas that are acted upon.

Stella Baker, Leeds

Help them makes sense of disaster

Young children are resilient. They will also have absorbed a lot of information from the media and from adult talk, and will be struggling to make sense of this. It is our responsibility to give them opportunities to explore their feelings and understand the facts.

Children's response to disaster is largely shaped by the reaction of key adults in their lives. Teachers need to talk calmly and truthfully about terrible events and answer questions honestly. You must be aware of any children who have undergone trauma, or who have connections with the affected areas, as they will need individual attention.

Remember to focus on the one positive, the world's humanitarian response.

The children might like to make their own contribution by fundraising for the survivors, which is the most any of us can do.

Tina Russell-Cruise, Macclesfield

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