Sunday, January 24, 2010

understanding haiti in their own way

A few years ago when I was still a classroom teacher one of my six-year-old student's mother's died suddenly. Feeling completely lost at how to possibly handle the situation I turned to one of my school's fabulous guidance counselors, who gave me a packet of information on how children developmentally process loss. I find myself thinking about that packet frequently, from watching children play hospital where a character dies (and is immediately brought back to life to die again), to watching them process world events.

The information she gave me is from the book Talking with Children About Loss, although sadly I do not have the author. The book sums up children's developmental understanding of death:

~3-5 year olds tend to believe death is temporary- a person has gone on a trip and will come back, just like when they are so sad when their parents leave for a weekend, but always return.
~6-8 year olds understand that death is permanent, but do not fully comprehend that it happens to everyone (ie, they themselves wont die). They are very matter-of-fact about death and tend to ask questions that seem insensitive like "is the body cold?" or "will worms eat grandpa?" "will I still eat cheerios after mom dies?" They are curious about death while looking for truthful answers that will reassure their own safety.

~9-12 year olds begin to have an adult understanding of death. They now understand that everyone dies, including themselves, and that it is forever. They fear the abandonment from family and friends death threatens. In order to avoid their fear they tend to look more deeply into the medical reasons behind death, or joke as a way to intellectualize and distance themselves from their feelings.

I have the most experience dealing with five-seven years, and as far as I can see, the book seems to be fairly accurate, at least with the description of the 6-8 year olds. Six year olds do tend to be more matter-of-fact about death. They seem fascinated by it and ask questions about it, or announce facts about it out of no where. I remember the little girl who lost her mother looking up at me and saying, "I'm six years old and I don't have a mother" and then going back to her work without changing her expression. I was devastated for her and had to hide my tears, but I tried my best to let her state these lines as she tried to process what had happened. She didn't need my adult reaction, she needed to talk out thoughts.

Recently, or course, I've been relying on this information while watching them process Haiti. The other morning a five year old bounded up to splatypus and me with a detailed picture. "Look!" she announced cheerfully, "It's Haiti!" Trying not to be horrified at her matter-of-fact-ness I walked over to her table with her to have her explain the drawing to me. "See, here's the island" she pointed to the large circle she'd drawn toward the edges of the board, "And all the buildings falling down, the palm trees, and all the dead people." she waved her hand. "And here are the people praying for the dead people".

She wasn't looking for attention at drawing such a horrific picture. It seemed to be her way of processing what she was seeing on the news. We draw pictures of pigeons and the playground and the school and our families- the things in our lives, the things we are thinking about at that very moment. So she drew Haiti from her perspective- a way to process what happened.

Our school started a penny drive to help Haiti. We've all been amazed at the large amounts of pennies that are rolling in. Where these kids are getting the pennies we don't know since they tend not to have money for field trips or books, or toys. But pennies, somehow they have. Every child seems to be walking in with bags of pennies. (which, admittedly, are really, really noisy)
The penny-drive is accessible to them. They have pennies. They can find pennies. They can give their pennies so that they are doing something to help, making them become a part of the solution. I overheard one teacher telling a child that he shouldn't give away all of his piggy-bank savings. "But I want to!" the child argued.
I think the penny drive was the perfect way for all ages to allow classes to talk about what happened, letting each child discuss the tragedy on his or her own level, and then it opened up the door for every child to contribute.

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