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Talking to children about tragedy and violence

Dear Lab School Parents,

As parents and educators, it is often hard to know how to respond to our children’s inquiries about upsetting issues and tragic incidents that they hear about in the news. This week’s horrible tragedy that occurred on Yonge Street near Sheppard Avenue is an example of this, and may have some of you wondering: should I try to protect my child from this news? Or should I tell my child about it now in preparation in case he/she hears about it from others? Perhaps your child has already come to you to ask about it, leaving you wondering how to respond to their questions.

We are writing this blog post to let you know how we are responding in the school and to provide some information to help you check in with your children about how they are feeling. Today in both our Grade 5 and 6 classrooms, the teachers, with Richard and I, spoke with the students about yesterday’s tragic events as many of them had already seen the news coverage or were connected to the events in some way. The Grade 5 and 6 classroom teachers did a beautifully sensitive job of focusing on all the "helpers" who responded to the scary situation and how we are safe. The teachers of the younger grades will address the issue with individuals or the whole group in developmentally appropriate ways if it comes up but may not introduce the topic.

In this post, please find below a few articles that may help you talk to your child about violence and tragedy. We know that each child is different, and each family will have their own way of managing this conversation. But these articles share common messages that we feel make sense for all children:

1. children need to be reassured that they are safe and protected; 2. children need simple, truthful, age appropriate answers to their questions; and​ 3. children need outlets to express their feelings in proactive ways.

This is how Lab School teachers are handling these conversations during the Grade 5 and 6 news classes at school.

We encourage you to read Alyson Schafer’s article tips which may help you in talking to your own child about this tragic event:

Alyson Schafer on Talking to Kids about Terrorism and Tragedy

We can wish we did not live in such complex and, quite frankly, frightening and unsettling, times. But unfortunately we do, and at the Lab School we know that we share the responsibility to educate your children around these issues. We are doing our best to maintain at all times our focus both on developmental appropriateness as well as the children’s and families’ opinions, perspectives, and personal agency. Thank you for your partnership and support. Please let us know if you have questions, comments, or concerns. Also, please inform your classroom teacher if there is anything we need to be aware of with regard to how your child is processing and handling this upsetting news.

All the best,



Below please find descriptions of how children may process and understand tragedy at different stages of their development. We are also offering more resources with suggested guidelines to help you navigate these tricky and sensitive discussions at home:

A Developmental View of how Children Understand and Process Tragedy

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reminds us that children’s ages affect their perceptions and understandings of traumatic events and “adult world” issues. Preschool and early-elementary-aged students are still very much at the stage of what we might describe as “magical thinking” regarding events occurring in the world around them. When confronted with challenging situations or information, children at this developmental level will try to infer causality, but they often do so in ways that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to adults and how we see/process the world.

As students grow and mature, around the age of ten or so, they make the final transition away from “magical thinking” and move towards a more concrete, realistic focus on “right” and “wrong.” When presented with challenging and troubling situations in the world, they may think: “bad people who do bad things should be punished--they broke rules.” They often do not yet understand nuances and complexities and can tend to be black-and-white in their reasoning. Depending on the individual child, they may be at an appropriate developmental stage to understand the context and complex emotions surrounding this tragedy, or they may not.

As children grow and mature physically, they also grow emotionally and cognitively. Older school students between the ages 11-14 are in the midst of what psychologist Jean Piaget would call the “formal-operations” stage of their development. Their brains are increasingly able to complete complex and abstract functions. This growth allows middle schoolers to think more abstractly and to better process complex ideas based on the pre-existing knowledge they have accumulated. Middle schoolers realize the concepts they are learning are applicable to real-life situations and should be understood as such. Schools must recognize that how we address traumatic events in the adult world has an impact on and shapes how young people process and understand their own version(s) of the world, because they are, by middle school, often paying close attention.

How to Help Kids Feel Safe After Tragedy

How to Talk to Kids About Tragedy in the Media

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Helping Children Cope with Frightening News

How to Talk to Kids about Terrorism

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Helping Children Cope with Frightening News

How to Talk with Kids about Terrible Things

Toronto Star Interview with Richard Messina in July 2017



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