Where We Can Start: A Guide for Navigating Crisis and Conflict with Young Children

October 27th, 2014 | by SRC

The following issue brief is part of a larger series developed by School Readiness Consulting: A Guide for Navigating Crises and Conflict with Young Children. We will publish new sections periodically to illuminate the challenges faced by young children in stressful situations. The Guide offers practical strategies for adults to help children build an understanding of complex interpersonal relationships and develop coping skills. Upcoming posts will address how to identify signs of stress; how to create safe and caring environments; and how to build resilience in young children. This issue brief was written by Mimi Howard, with contributions from Lindsey Allard Agnamba, Kimberly Pearson Cooke, and Je’Kendria Trahan. 

Our Reality

From the tragedy at Sandy Hook to the seemingly incessant instances of violence against citizens, traumatic events seem commonplace in our society. For young children who are just learning to make sense of their world and the people in it, exposure to violence is naturally confusing and frightening. Violence affects how children feel, how they behave, and what they learn.  It influences their notions of how people should treat each other and solve problems, as well as how they should react to the violence and conflict that happens in our world. Children need consistent help and guidance from the adults around them to cope with their feelings and to process these events.   

Violence suffuses American life. While the nature and scope of its effect on children varies with the frequency, intensity, and proximity of exposure, all children experience some form of violence and all feel its effects. The degree to which young children are exposed to violence today has led many to label it as a serious public health issue.(1)  As many as 60% of all children and teens in this country are exposed to violence whether as victims or as witnesses.(2)

The Impact on Young Children 

Children’s exposure to violence falls along a continuum. The diagram below captures the relationships between the severity of the exposure, the proportion of children exposed, and the degree to which the exposure negatively impacts children’s lives.

Children at the highest point on the continuum, who experience traumatic and chronic exposure to violence, run the greatest risk of compromised development and learning. The early years of a child’s life represent a period of important and rapid brain development and research confirms that exposure to violence, especially chronic exposure, in the early years can disrupt children’s normal brain development. While learning to cope with adversity is a necessary part of healthy child development, prolonged exposure to adversity or traumatic events has no instructive value. Without the well-informed support of caring adults to buffer the impact, a child’s stress systems are activated for longer periods of time interfering with both physical and emotional wellbeing and normal development. This condition has been called toxic stress (4) and can have a major impact on children’s early learning, behavior, and school achievement.

It is most important for the growing number of children subject to toxic stress to experience countervailing influences. Caring adults can:

  • Foster and model stable, secure relationships
  • Engage a child in discussions and interactions to increase understanding and resilience
  • Provide opportunities to build on existing strengths and develop a sense of his or her own value

Where We Can Start

A child’s experience of and reaction to violence is quite different than an adult’s. To mitigate toxic effects of the child’s experience, we must first understand it. The meanings children construct about their world are based on their experiences. Because no two children’s past experiences are the same, each child will construct their own unique meaning – even from the same event. At various stages of development, children’s thinking is influenced by a number of general characteristics and dispositions. Understanding how these characteristics play out in children’s interpretations can provide a powerful lens for understanding their needs and concerns.(5)  As children’s thought processes evolve, so do their reactions to violence.

Here are some useful things to remember about children’s thinking and how it informs their perspective and belief systems.(6)

Children tend to lock in on one facet of an event. For example, a young boy who sees saturation coverage of a school shooting on television may be terrified to report to his classroom. He may think that classrooms are where children get hurt. It may take time for him to understand that violence is not what happens at school, and that there are ways for him to be safe there.
Before they can consider other points of view, young children see the world from an especially egocentric vantage point. When feeling threatened or insecure, a child may become resistant to help from an adult.  An adult might need to be much more patient and gentle to gain the trust on which conversation depends.
Young children often see and experience their world in absolute terms.  It is a challenge for them to consider gradations in attributes and characteristics. With time and experience they are better able to recognize that “goodness and badness” or  “safety and danger” can be present across a continuum.
Image Credit -www.earlylearningreview.com.au
Young children are not abstract thinkers. They focus on the concrete and immediate aspects of a situation. In a traumatic situation, a child will react primarily to the reality of what they see and hear.  With patience and effective support, they can use cause and effect to manage their response and reduce some stressors.

Children may react to situations as if they were static, stand alone events. They sometimes struggle to take a larger or longer term perspective.  As they develop, their thinking becomes more dynamic and transformative.  A child can learn to place events in a more fluid context.

In conclusion, children may assign illogical, confusing, and sometimes surprising meanings to the violence and trauma they perceive. Exposure to violence can cause fear, anxiety, and high levels of stress for anyone. There are important, actionable ways for adults to strengthen a child’s resistance to this pervasive toxin.

What are some ways your school or program is approaching this issue? We welcome comments and conversation in the comment section below.


Works Cited 

[1] Levin, Diane E. (2003) Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom, 2nd Edition.Washington, DC. National Association for the Education of Young Children and Cambridge, MA. Educators for Social Responsibility.

[2] Child Trends. (2013) Children’s Exposure to Violence: Indicators on Children and Youth. Child Trends Data Bank.  Accessed online at: http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/118_Exposure_to_Violence.pdf

[3] ibid

[4] Center on the Developing Child. Key Concepts:Toxic Stress. Cambridge, MA. accessed online at: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/toxic_stress_response/

[5] Levin, Diane E. (2003) Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom, 2nd Edition.Washington, DC. National Association for the Education of Young Children and Cambridge, MA. Educators for Social Responsibility.

[6] ibid

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