Building a Peaceable Classroom: Helping Young Children Feel Safe in Violent Times

Article excerpt

Imagine these scenarios:

A 5-year-old child is on an airplane. After running the pre-flight airplane safety video, the flight attendant announces a special video feature "for our passengers' viewing pleasure." Suddenly, the child's mother is horrified to see a rebroadcast of a TV news program that summarizes recent mass murders, complete with detailed film footage of the victims. The mother is especially distraught because she has made every effort in her home to protect her child from such graphic depictions of violence.

A 9-year-old begins having nightmares following a "sleep-over" at a good friend's house. When his parents discuss the nightmares with him, they discover that the boy watched his first "R-rated" violent suspense movie with his friend and his friend's father.

A child care class is on a field trip. As the children are about to cross a busy street, a police officer offers to stop traffic so the children may cross safely. One child runs screaming to the teacher. Later, the teacher finds out that the police arrested the child's father the previous weekend when the child was present.

Children growing up today are regularly confronted by violence. Their sense of safety is repeatedly undermined as they see--in the home, school, community and media--that the world is a violent and dangerous place, and that people regularly hurt each other and use fighting to solve their problems. And parents and teachers are often powerless to protect children from this violence (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1990).

While the amount and severity of the violence to which children are exposed and the degree to which they are affected varies across society, few children are exempt (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny & Pardo, 1992). Figure 1, "The Continuum of Violence in Children's Lives," illustrates how children's exposure to violence fits along a continuum of severity--from entertainment violence (which touches most children's lives) to chronic and direct exposure to violence within their immediate environment (which affects fewer children but which builds on the more prevalent violence). The degree to which children are affected is likely to increase as they move up the continuum.

How Children Are Affected by Violence

Recently, a talented 7-year-old tennis player suddenly refused to play anymore. Gradually, she opened up enough to explain that she would not compete because she "didn't want to get stabbed [like Monica Seles]."

During the Persian Gulf war, a 5-year-old burst into tears because he was worried about his grandparents' safety. In an effort to reassure him about his own safety, adults had told him that "the war was far away" from his home. Unfortunately, because his grandparents lived "far away" he thought they were in danger.

The children in the above scenarios are struggling to construct meaning out of the violence they see (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1985, 1990 & 1992). Children construct meaning from their experiences through play, art and discussions with others. The meaning depends on their individual characteristics, current level of development, family background and prior experiences.

Adults need to understand children's perspectives in order to successfully counteract the effects of violence. Similarly, the more a child has been exposed to violence, the more important it will be for adults to help them make meaning of that violence.

Children's development can be profoundly affected by their experiences with violence (Craig, 1992; Garbarino, et al., 1992; Levin, 1994; Wallach, 1993). For instance, a sense of trust and safety--the deep belief that the world is a safe place and that "I can count on being cared for and being kept safe"--is at the heart of early development (Erikson, 1950). Today, children regularly see that they are not safe and that adults are often powerless to keep them safe. They see that they have to tight and that weapons will help them keep themselves safe (Levin & Carlsson-Paige, in press). …