Syrian execution sets off debate over current events lessons

Syrian execution sets off debate over current events lessons

(Mass.) Each week or so in classrooms all over the U.S., students will turn their attention to a TV newscast and to curriculum based on current events.

But in an unsettling episode last month, Channel One News – one of the nation’s largest providers of daily news content to public schools – included in its lineup a graphic story on the horrifying beheading of journalist James Foley by Islamic extremists.

While it is unclear exactly what was broadcast that day, most accounts agree that nothing was shown that hadn’t already been on the networks or in newspapers.

Still, the exposure of students – perhaps as young as third grade – to such graphic details set off a chain of internet chatter and outrage as  well as internal debate among educators about what to limit and when.

“I have long advocated that schools do need to have regular conversations with children about the news so children know they will be able to talk about distressing or scary news when it comes up,” said Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston and author of several books on children and media, including “Teaching Young Children in Violent Times.”

By the time students reach the third grade, Levin said, parents should assume some of their control has passed – that children have already been exposed to sensational news. At home, a parent might change the channel when the evening news comes on in hopes of deflecting objectionable reports but kids are many times already inadvertently exposed, catching a glimpse of war casualties in the newspaper or hearing reports of a shooting on the radio on the way to school.

“Usually (children) don’t get any input from adults or opportunities to talk about these things among anyone but themselves,” Levin said.

The dilemma is perhaps as old as parenting itself but today where the media bombardment comes from all directions, real world intrusion into childhood has probably never been greater.

Most educators agree that a study of national and global issues is a critical part of forming a rich, well-rounded curriculum. Parents, however, often feel that schools are overreaching their roles by presenting the day’s often-disturbing headlines to their children — especially in younger grades.

Still, child development experts like Levin say that teachers should address these topics for another reason: to ease children’s anxieties about what they hear and see in the news.

“They need to feel like they can have safe conversations with us when they are confused or upset by something, and that we will help them work it through,” Levin said.

Katie Stromberg, whose third-grade daughter attends a Loomis, Calif. school that does not subscribe to Channel One News said she believes schools have a responsibility to shield children from images that might cause them emotional distress.

“I don’t think it’s the school’s job to expose my child to explicit content,” Stromberg said, noting that her main concern is that such potent imagery might generate a deep-set fear of the world or people from other cultures. 

“I think it’s appropriate to address terrorism in the context of world issues,” she said, “but I think there’s a difference between talking about issues in an abstract manner and showing explicit material, which is very concrete and disturbing.”

Guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics supports this view. It advises that young children should be kept away from repetitive images and sounds about tragic circumstances that might appear on television, radio, social media and the Internet.

For older children who may be ready to watch news programs, the academy suggests recording the broadcast, previewing it for relevant and appropriate content and skipping parts that may be overly upsetting to young people. The show can then be paused for questions and discussion as needed.

Levin said that graphic images of violence should be flagged.

“When you see the images, it ends up being more multimedia and ‘real,’” Levin said. “When it’s just words, you have to create your own images from what you know. You can tame it; it doesn’t have to be as extreme if you don’t want it to be. You have more control over what you imagine.”

As children get older and are exposed to more media and less parental control, it’s harder to keep them from seeing disturbing images. But, Levin says, the longer children can be guarded from scary visuals, the better.

Some parents have suggested that schools send a note home – perhaps at the beginning of the year – to give notice that newscasts would be part of daily activities as part of the social science curriculum.

Levin said teachers in the primary grades especially might try first engaging in a reassuring discussion before the broadcast of a frightening or worrisome event.

“As a teacher I might say ‘Has anyone heard about anything in the news they want to talk about? What do you think about it? What do you know about it?’ If children do not say they have heard anything after a big news event, the teacher might then raise it directly.”

In the early grades, teachers should limit the conversation to what students already know, the questions they have, and their feelings about what they’ve heard. To help children feel more secure, teachers can emphasize all the things that people are doing help victims of tragic events. Firefighters, police and doctors are familiar figures to children and knowing they are in charge will reassure troubled kids.

By fourth grade, Levin said, a teacher might ask students for their thoughts on why the event happened or why a person acted in a harmful way. 

Prompting students to do something positive can quell feelings of helplessness. Kids of all ages can benefit from brainstorming positive actions that can be taken in response to bad news.

“It lets kids feel like there are good things you can do even when people are doing bad things,” Levin said, “It’s a way to not just focus on the negative, and balance or counteract what they’re seeing.”

Levin said current events provide a great opportunity for high school students to learn how to write letters to their representatives in Congress or to the President.

 “Choosing one issue a week to talk about what comes up in the news and turning it into an active, constructive conversation where students can come up with a voice, a logic and an action scheme can have a really big impact on them and who they become as citizens.”

The APA suggests that adults be on the lookout for signs that a child may not be coping well with information they’ve seen or heard. Things to look for include:

•        Sleep problems:  Watch for trouble falling or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances.

•        Physical complaints:  Children may complain of having a headache or feeling generally unwell.  Changes in eating patterns — more or less than usual — can also be a concern.

•        Changes in behavior:  Including social aggression, acting more immature, becoming less patient and more demanding. A child who once separated easily from parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change patterns of tobacco, alcohol or substance abuse.

•        Emotional problems:  Children may experience sadness, depression, anxiety or fears.

Schools should advise parents whose children are experiencing such symptoms to talk to their child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. 

One of the most critical aspects to helping children and teens feel secure in the face of distressing events, Levin said, is providing the right environment.  “Knowing that you have a community of people with whom you feel safe and with whom you feel safe raising these issues is one of the most important things we can do in the immediate world to help kids learn positive lessons in the midst of the negative and feel secure.”