Recent events have reminded me of times from my own childhood. Growing up during the cold war, I remember hearing about the hostility between the then Soviet Union and the USA in particular and lying in bed at night worrying about the things I’d heard. In my limited understanding of the situation, I often lived in fear.
We have all been shocked, horrified and upset by the devastating news images and stories coming out of Ukraine. Many children will be feeling frightened, anxious and they may feel it will have a direct impact on their lives. Even our youngest children will probably have picked up on this, heard adults discuss the events or seen images on the television or social media. There will, however, be some children who do not know about the conflict and we need to be sensitive to the differing levels of information they will have heard.
As a starting point it would be a good idea to find out what, if anything, they know about the conflict. We can do this through observing our children, noticing their behaviour and noting any changes, listening to their conversations and questions and working out how they feel and what level of information they have about the situation. Children need love and reassurance, they need to feel safe and secure with us, therefore hearing stories about war will be unsettling and frightening, regardless of their level of understanding.
War is a very difficult concept for children to understand and the reasons why countries go to war are even more difficult. It is important to remember that there will be groups of children who may be extra vulnerable at this time, for example, children who have already experienced trauma, children who are refugees or children who have lived experiences of violence and fighting. In addition, many children will have family members who live in Russia or Ukraine or neighbouring countries. These are the children for which this conflict will have a direct impact, and we must ensure we remain sensitive to this at all times.
Key principles when discussing war and conflict with children:
- Be as honest as possible with your children and use terms that are factual and portray information, avoiding the potential for misunderstandings or stereotyping. Use correct language whilst remembering their age and stage of development, e.g. war, fighting, dead etc
- Listen to them, give them your full attention and answer questions as honestly as possible, remembering that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know!” Never be offended or affronted by the directness of a young child’s questions and comments. They are trying to fathom the unfathomable and we need to remain sensitive to their needs.
- Do not add to children’s anxiety and fears. Do not listen to the news with the children present or talk to colleagues about the situation in their earshot. If children initiate a conversation about it, then respond in language they will understand. Reassure children that they are safe - they rely on us for their feelings of safety and security.
- It is important not to belittle their concerns but instead acknowledge children’s feelings and accept all emotions.
- Ensure that changes in your setting are kept to a minimum. Familiar surroundings can help a child to remain feeling safe and secure.
- Don’t worry if children ask the same questions over and over again. They are trying to reassure themselves and we must answer consistently each time as this will offer the reassurance they are seeking.
- Ensure you remain calm when discussing the conflict. If you are feeling frightened yourself, this will come across through the discussion and will not help the children feel calm.
- You may find children use playful interactions to explore war and express their feelings, we can support this and use them as opportunities to discuss difficult concepts like death, remembering that young children do not yet have a full understanding of what this means.
- You may want to share stories in which a character is involved in war or fighting or provide opportunities for children to make up their own stories or have their own narrative about it. Ensure any stories we share do not add to children’s worries but are used to alleviate concerns.
- Check in with children regularly and monitor their levels of wellbeing and anxiety. Remember that children’s behaviour may regress after experiencing trauma, for example by wetting themselves, thumb sucking or becoming excessively clingy to a carer. We must offer understanding, reassurance and security at this time and not chastise these behaviours. They will pass with time as the child feels more safe and secure.
- Work in partnership with parents and carers and share your response to the children and how you will deal with any questions with them.
It is really important that we practice compassion and are careful how we discuss the role of the Russians. We may have Russian children or children with families in Russia as well as Ukraine. There is enough hate in the world already, our role is to love, be compassionate to everyone, and help our children feel safe and secure with us. Ensure our comments do not add to hate-speech or discriminate against one group or another.
Lastly, find a practical way to respond to this crisis. As a setting, can you fund-raise for charities working in countries involved in conflicts, or write letters to your local councillors? Perhaps they can create an image about peace which can be displayed in your setting or shared with any local organisations with links in Eastern Europe or Russia.
About the author:
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.