Why isn't the gerbil moving anymore?" Have you ever had to answer this question? It has been known to strike terror into the heart of even the most experienced first grade teacher when the death of a classroom pet is discovered by a curious 6-year-old according to research done by psychologists.
The issues raised are more distressing when a classmate or a classmate's parent dies and questions are asked. The simplest path is that of silence, or of trying to dispose of the questions as swiftly and painlessly as possible, but often that may solve only the teacher's problem.
By the age of five virtually every child has had some contact with death and some curiosity about it. Perhaps it was the death of a pet, a dead bird found on the street, a "squished bug," or the death of a family member. In any case, it is only logical that this curiosity will be carried over to the school setting, and it is important that the teacher -- as well as parents -- be prepared to cope with questions that come up.
What happens when questions go unanswered or are only partially answered? The best example I can think of is a boy named Mark. I first met him about five years ago at a university-affiliated psychological clinic. Pete, who was then five years old, had been brought in by his parents who were concerned about his refusal to go to bed at night. Although he had no history of bedtime problems previously, Pete had begun to throw bedtime tantrums two weeks earlier. He would cry and refuse to go near the bedroom, and, when finally overcome with sleep, he would often awaken with nightmares. His behavior and emotional development were all within normal limits aside from his rather phobic reaction to bedtime preparations. Neither parent was able to offer any insight into the possible precipitants of this behavior.
During one of the counseling sessions I had with Pete, he told me the story of a man who ". . . got a heart attack, fell out of bed, and died." He explained that he had overheard his mother telling this story to someone over the telephone. Putting events together with the help of his parents, I learned that a family friend had recently died of a heart attack, and Pete did indeed hear his mother describe the event to a friend over the telephone. Pete had no idea what a heart attack was or where one came from. He certainly knew what falling out of bed was, though, and if doing that could make you get a heart attack and die" then no one was going to get him into a bed.
With this information I was able to help ease Pete's concerns in short order, but the concreteness of his concerns remains an impressive example of the misconceptions children can develop about death. Pete also provides a prime example of the harm that can result from not talking about death when children have questions, although in this case Pete had not asked any.
1. Be honest and don't try to soften the issue too much- they know much more than what you think.
2. Listen an be present
3. Reassure them that you and they are going to be okay
4. Play with them, get them to think about something else
5. Include them in the formalities
With that said, "Put a little MaxPower into your life!"
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