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How To Talk To Kids About The Riots At The U.S. Capitol

Supporters of President Trump roam the U.S. Capitol Rotunda after storming into the building on Wednesday.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of President Trump roam the U.S. Capitol Rotunda after storming into the building on Wednesday.

Music teacher Martin Urbach was up most of Wednesday night working with colleagues on lesson plans to help his students make sense of the day's events. "I only got like two hours of sleep."

Then, Thursday morning, he and his students at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City met over Zoom to talk about how a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, looted, destroyed property and succeeded, for several hours, in interrupting the certification of President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

"I'm not sure if people know, but yesterday was a pretty tricky day in our country, in our world. ... I would love to pick your brains and learn together," Urbach said, opening the mic and the chat window to students.

One student said she thought Trump was a "sore loser who ... should take accountability and be more mature about the situation." Another contrasted what he'd seen with more peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. "They're breaking into the Capitol, breaking windows and everything. A protest is supposed to be calm, it's just walking and saying chants."

One girl sounded overwhelmed and said she was having trouble following all of the "crazy" things happening. She had seen a video of a woman getting pepper-sprayed. "I find the news kind of scary."

No doubt many young people across the country are finding this moment extremely scary. Parents, caregivers and teachers can help children cope.

Help children make sense of the news

Teachers such as Urbach and organizations around the country turned out a vast range of classroom resources, literally overnight, to address students' questions and feelings. Many of those resources include images, tweets and memes, and give guidance for talking about the role of white supremacy in Wednesday's violence.

By Thursday morning, there were guides from the education nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, PBS NewsHour Extra and the New York City Department of Education. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, at the University of Michigan, shared a guide for discussing difficult or high-stakes topics. Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Dunn collected social justice and trauma-informed tips for teachers.

For those struggling with talking to the youngest children, Martha Bishop, who teaches kindergarten outside Tucson, Ariz., shared this with NPR on social media:

"I think I'd probably tell them that today some people threw big naughty grownup temper tantrums because they didn't like how the vote for president turned out. They did this instead of using their words and it was a little scary, just like it can be scary when you see another kid (or sibling?) throw a BIG temper tantrum. They were loud and interrupted our leaders while they were doing important work. But helpers stopped them and our leaders got to do their jobs!"

As NPR has reported, there's evidence that talking about helpers can make a difference in how kids see their world.

Calm anxiety

What's notable about this crisis is that so many children were at home where they could watch it unfold in real time, with no check on the dosage of news, says Melinda Macht-Greenberg, a clinical, developmental and school psychologist in the Boston area. She says we should think about "modeling for kids how to be able to manage the questions, the worries, the anxiety as they are emerging, and to be preparing them for some of the things that might happen next that they might be worried about."

She says to watch for changes in eating, sleeping, emotional volatility or clinginess in kids. Take breaks from the news. And keep inviting them to talk, even if they don't seem to want to take in what's happening.

Psychologist Reena Patel says her toolbox for calm with children and teenagers includes breathing exercises, visualizations and positive affirmations, such as "I can do this." She also encourages parents "coming up with ways that we can teach children to compartmentalize some of their worries and stress and anxiety." Like writing them down, or setting aside a certain time of day to talk about them.

Remember, Macht-Greenberg says, this is not a "one and done" situation. We don't have to get these conversations with our children perfect on the first try. We need strategies for the long haul, because we're likely to continue in a moment of "drawn-out," low-grade anxiety between now and the inauguration.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.