How early childhood education services support young children in the wake of trauma

Published on Wednesday, 01 May 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Article hero image

Whether they are directly involved or feel the shockwaves reverberating in their community, young children can be strongly affected by traumatic events.

Incidents like the Christchurch shooting, or news of a serious accident or natural disaster can leave youngsters feeling confused, frightened, unsafe, and fretful for their family and friends. So, it's important that early childhood education services join families in supporting children and providing age-appropriate explanations, guidance and reassurance.

How can educators help young children feel safe?

Traumatic incidents are marked by their suddenness and unpredictability. They shake up our normal routines, challenge our usual expectations, and can leave children feeling scared, vulnerable and unsure.

To help children feel safe and grounded in the wake of an unsettling incident, the Ministry of Education recommends that educators focus on providing comfort, promoting calm and connecting with children.

In practice, this means:

  • Reassuring children and sticking to normal routines at the ECE service
  • Keeping calm and fostering a peaceful environment
  • Engaging in enjoyable activities together
  • Taking the time to listen to children and talk things through at their level

What is the best way to talk about traumatic incidents with young children?

A preschooler has a very different world view and developmental capacity to an older child, teenager or adult, so it's important that educators tailor their explanations and answers to the youngster's age.

The Ministry of Education says that, 'Very young children need brief, simple information,' balanced with reassurances that their early learning service and home are safe and that grown-ups are there to protect them.

The Parenting Place adds, up to the age of four, ‘Small children have trouble separating facts from fantasy, so … it might be best to shield them from traumatic events as much as [possible]. If they have questions, it's important to answer them, but only in as much detail as [needed] to reassure them and help them feel safe'.

How can educators tell if a child is anxious after a traumatic incident?

The Ministry of Education says that children may not find it easy to talk about their feelings, so educators can ask them directly if they're feeling worried and then work through their concerns.

Educators also get a sense of each child's emotional state by looking for any changes in their behaviour, appetite and sleep patterns. And if there are signs of anxiety or unease, then care-givers will provide support and reassurance, speak with the child's parents and, if need be, get professional advice.

What is the role of Traumatic Incidents teams?

The Government's Traumatic Incidents Teams are made up of experts, such as psychologists and special education advisors, who provide advice and support to ECE services and schools regarding traumatic events, emergency planning and pandemics.

This means if a criminal act, earthquake, or another traumatic incident occurs, then the team can help ECE services and schools:

  • Develop appropriate processes for dealing with the incident to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and staff, and a return to normal operations as fast as possible
  • Understand the emotional and psychological effects of the traumatic incident and suggest ways that educators can support those involved in it
  • Communicate appropriately with children, parents, staff and others about the traumatic incident
  • Get in touch with other services, such as counselling services, where needed

Traumatic Incidents Teams played a key role after the Christchurch shooting and ECE services can contact them at any time through their local Learning Support office or by calling 0800 848 326.

In summary, there's no doubt that traumatic incidents are just that, traumatic and unsettling for small children. However, there are ways for ECE services to support children and help them feel safe and secure after shocking events. And together, New Zealanders of all ages can recover from the incidents that leave us reeling.

Further Reading for Parents

The Parenting Place: How to Talk to Your Kids About Trauma
The Ministry of Health: Managing Stress in an Emergency - Helping Children

Related Articles

Article image

Resilience lessons for early childhood

Supporting the development of resilience to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of children.

Article image

7 life skills that will help your child succeed

The skills that will help your child thrive in their current and future lives; and how you can nurture these skills in your youngster's day-to-day activities.

Article image

Stamping out bullying in child care

How bullying in the early years erodes confidence and self-esteem, and how to identify the signs of bullying and work together to stop this behaviour.