The changing nature of the media means that children are exposed to more bad news than ever before. CEO of KU, Chris Legg says educators and carers in early learning centres play a critical role in helping families navigate these tricky subjects. This piece is published in partnership with KU.
Being in the car, madly scrambling to mute the radio before the small ears in the back hear the news bulletin, complete with whichever horror story is making headlines that day, is likely familiar to many parents.
News broadcasts inevitably involve scary subjects, whether it’s crime, tragedies, terror attacks or natural disasters.
While the instinct to simply turn these stories off is natural and popular, shielding small ears from bad news altogether sadly isn’t realistic.
Chris Legg, CEO of KU, says that even with parents’ best and sensible attempts to limit their childrens’ exposure to the news, the changing nature of media means that children are exposed to more bad news more often than in the past.
“The unfortunate thing is we can’t protect children from everything,” she says. “The rule of thumb in early childhood education is to help children make sense of the world around them. Now, in reality, some of our world doesn’t make sense.”
Legg says being honest and reassuring is the best approach. If children learn about a natural disaster or a terror attack like in Christchurch earlier this year, and they ask about it, Legg says it’s important to answer honestly. “If you brush it off, it may actually make them worry about it more. You have to be honest but only to a point they understand and it’s important to be reassuring too. To explain that it happened, that it’s very sad but that the police are making sure everyone is ok.”
Early childhood education consultant Lisa Bryant agrees.
“The best thing I’ve ever read about how to help children after traumatic events was that children only feel as safe as the adults around them make them feel,” Bryant says. “Early education and care settings have a key role in making children feel safe.”
Part of that means teaching children about things that aren’t safe. “The primary job of education and care services is, after all, education,” Bryant says. “Children need to know, and in fact do know from a much earlier age than many adults realise, that the world is not always a safe place. They need to understand why this is so, and need to understand that the adults around them, including their educators and teachers, will always try and keep them safe.”
Chris Legg says educators and carers in early learning centres play a critical role in this regard. “Highly qualified teachers understand children’s development and their cognitive abilities,” she explains. “Having staff with that level of understanding of little minds and expertise means they can teach the children appropriately and they can also help guide families to navigate tricky subjects too.”
It’s an intangible and invaluable component of a high-quality early learning service that Legg says cannot be dismissed as “just” childcare. “It’s education. Intentional teaching, where value is placed on the role of the teacher, creates a sense of open-mindedness and opportunity around learning,” she says. It’s the intangibility of the quality of care that KU has captured in its ‘See Hear Feel | the difference’ tagline.
Belinda Rahim has a 3-year old daughter at a KU centre in Victoria and confirms there was something very different when they first stepped inside.
“It is the type of centre I had been looking for, because it matched our gentle, respectful, style of parenting,” Rahim explains. “Some family and friends had laughed at us when we said what we were after in a centre, saying, “you’ll never find that; places like that don’t exist”.”
But to Rahim’s delight they do. “One of the things that has impressed us the most is how knowledgeable the centre director is on developmental issues. I came to her with some concerns I had about my daughter and almost immediately she recommended a book that dealt with the specific issue, and kindly allowed me to borrow it.”
Alex Roach, Clinical Psychologist and Clinic Manager at the Child Behaviour Research Clinic, University of Sydney, says that the value professionals bring to children’s development cannot be understated.
She says when children are curious and ask questions about scary subjects – and the conversation can be conducted by a professional who understands how to provide age appropriate, solution-focused answers – the scope for children to learn and develop is immense.
“When presented this way, knowledge of these topics will instil hope and a sense of agency, and even protect them,” she says. “Addressing humanitarian issues with children is a great opportunity for teaching compassion, instilling values and supporting moral development.”
At some point most lives will be touched, either directly or indirectly, by tragedy or trauma. It’s unlikely that dealing with big issues is one of the priorities that parents seek out when selecting a preschool or childcare centre. But perhaps it should be. What else is as powerful as the peace of mind that little minds are being taught appropriately about the world around them?