There are some who subscribe to the belief that “tough topics” shouldn’t be discussed with young children, declaring them “too sad” or “too negative”.
Let it be known - I am not one of those people.
In my experience, anytime a potentially “tough topic” has come up with young students, the children prove themselves more than capable of understanding and emphasizing, and sometimes show more maturity than adults I’ve had similar discussions with.
That being said, the concept of being developmentally appropriate is, and should be, at the forefront of our thinking in how these topics are approached and handled. Two that come to mind from my own experience are the story of Terry Fox as well as the meaning of Remembrance Day. Given that the Terry Fox run just happened last week, that’s fresh in my mind as I reflect on this topic.
Two separate times in the past, I’ve heard educators out there say that their Kindergartens would take part in Terry Fox Day and go out and run with the rest of the school, but wouldn’t be discussing the meaning behind it, as it wasn’t “appropriate” for young students. In my mind, this is doing a disservice both to Terry’s story and to your students. Beyond that, it’s sending the harmful message that you think your students are incapable of understanding big ideas. My own experience has shown me that this is in no way the case. In fact, young students bring a fresh and unique outlook that makes them incredibly capable of discussing and understanding these big ideas, when they are (of course) brought up in a developmentally appropriate way.
This past week, I brought the Kindergartens into the gym so we could sit in one large circle and see each other’s faces. I gave one simple reminder that sometimes we read stories that were funny, and sometimes we read ones that were serious. This would be a serious one. A student raised her hand to remind her peers that being serious meant not being silly. Aside from this initial reminder, I never once needed to stop to ask students to listen, to stop talking, or to focus. In fact, the very opposite occurred. As I spoke to them like real human beings who I value and respect, I found I was faced with wide-eyed students, hanging on every word. What I found fascinating was that despite starting in a circle, as I talked more about Terry Fox, the students actually creeped closer and closer, until we were no longer in a circle but rather a tight bunch. It was like they felt and understood that this was much more than just a story book. We talked about Terry’s life, and yes, his illness and struggles. Children raised their hands to make connections to the text, sharing brief stories about people they know who have gotten sick. These moments of connection and sharing made us truly feel like a respectful community – more so than in any other moment this year. Our conversation did eventually turn to Terry’s death, and no, I didn’t brush it over. I view my students as capable. As we spoke, tears did well up in my eyes, as well as the eyes of some students. I am a firm believer that allowing students to see you show real and true emotion is a powerful thing. I am never ashamed of that, and it’s helped to build some really strong bonds in our classroom community. I did make a point of not dwelling on this part, but rather moving forward towards the idea that although Terry isn’t still with us, it’s our job to carry his message forward. This is something that very much resonated with the students. I can’t tell you the feelings I felt when we returned to class later and the students thought of messages to put on flags to wave and support at the run (“Terry Fox is a hero”, “I love you and miss you Terry Fox”, “Terry Fox I wish you were my friend”, “We will help”).
My heart felt warm and full and I checked in with myself and realized why I believe what I believe when it comes to young children and the “tough stuff”. Here was a meaningful experience, in which the students showed their uncanny ability to treat serious subject matter with the utmost respect, connect it to their own real lived experiences, work through their feelings and reframe it to move forward on a positive note. To me, that’s heaps more beneficial than avoiding a topic all together for fear that they can’t handle it. Time and time again, our very capable students prove that belief wrong.