In the current political climate, emotions in America are high. Regardless of a community’s prevailing politics, teachers see these emotions play out in classrooms. This is true with children as young as kindergarten. Early childhood teachers often don’t know what to do when emotions around “adult” topics arise. So they don’t address it.
I taught kindergarten and first grade for twelve years, as well as taught graduate student teachers-in-training. Far too often, former colleagues and graduate students have expressed reluctance or refusal to talk about subjects like bias, stereotypes, news reporting, deportation, outright racism and other issues under the guise of their students “not being ready” or “not understanding.” In reality, it’s the teachers who are not ready. They fear saying the wrong thing. They ignore it. Sometimes what they need is permission and guidance. But doing nothing is unacceptable.
I’ve been reflecting these past months on what I learned over time about emotions and young children. There are some important things for early elementary teachers to keep in mind.
- Emotions carry: Whether or not teachers want to talk about them explicitly in the classroom, politics are creeping in—as both happy and bitter realities do. Young children are particularly sensitive to emotions in their environment. They inherit those of their own families, their neighborhoods, and from media they’re exposed to. Young children don’t understand politics. They do know how to listen. And they believe what they hear.
- Preparation and education: Teachers must constantly educate themselves about ways to talk and help children process difficult situations. Talk also happens among children. If they bring it up, it means their curiosity is peaked and they’re grappling with what something means. It’s not inappropriate to talk with children even as young as 5 about topics that may seem sensitive but are certainly relevant. Numerous resources are available to help do this in age-appropriate ways.
- Asking questions: Teachers don’t need to reveal personal politics, and shouldn’t. But if fear and other strong emotions, or misinformation, enter the classroom—it’s the teacher’s responsibility to ask questions. Teachers can make themselves a part of children’s conversations in order to understand what they do understand. Then they can provide reassurance (and facts) if it’s clear children misunderstand.
Self-awareness: For teachers who are White, American-born, non-Muslim, and/or heterosexual, this is a time for a self-check. It’s disingenuous to pretend to know what it’s like to be a racial, religious, or cultural minority, or an immigrant in this country when a person is not. Straight teachers don’t know what it’s like to be LGBT.
Specific fears experienced by children in these communities are legitimate, based on things that are happening and what some political leaders say. Validating the emotions of students of color, Muslim students, those from immigrant families and those with LGBT families is not the same as pretending to understand how they’re feeling or a teacher saying his or her emotions are just like theirs.
- Being the adult: Though little, children live in an adult world. When they’re at school, teachers are the adults who are there to help them understand the world in ways they can understand. Some families may be looking for guidance. Teachers are the experts, after all. They must act like it by being present and open.
- Seeking support: Teachers can find ways to support each other. They also bring the outside world into schools. While it’s not appropriate for teachers to talk to children about their own strong emotions, it is important to have others to talk with. This is especially important because teachers have the additional challenge of being present for children all day.
- Listening: Most important of all is listening. The worst we can do when we hear children express intense interest or emotions about something is turn the other way. Silence speaks almost as loudly as a scream. Children certainly hear it.