Helping children deal with adult topics
Tips for School & District Administrators

3 Ways to Help Students Navigate the Grown-Up World

By Brian Gatens

Today’s teachers and parents inevitably deal with troubling aspects of our children’s screentime on televisions, smartphones, tablets and computers. Children are constantly being exposed to information that’s too challenging and mature for them to process appropriately. I had an experience lately that brought this issue to life.

Helping children deal with adult topicsI’ve just returned from my summer vacation, a cross-country road trip with my father and my youngest son. While we were eating breakfast in one hotel restaurant, the morning TV news broadcast jumped to a story about a particularly heinous and violent crime that was dominating the news cycle. As the story began, all of the children in the room, eight to 10 or so, turned their attention to the TV. They weren’t so much interested in the content, I’m guessing, but their always-on access to technology has trained them to reflexively glance at visual stimuli.

Many children today are plugged into the world in ways that were unimaginable even five or 10 years ago. And that’s not all: The overall shift in content toward more mature subject matter (in news programs and pop culture alike) makes it incredibly difficult for parents and teachers to navigate this world. Here are some of my favorite coping strategies for those times when children are exposed to adult topics:

Make your classroom a sanctuary

For the days immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I made a conscious decision to spend only a little bit of time helping my children process those horrific events. This wasn’t done so much to avoid the subject matter; I just wanted to offer the students a safe place where they could, literally and figuratively, shut the world away. I also knew our school’s parents were being attentive to the needs of their children, and I always had access to our guidance department as necessary. Knowing that they wouldn’t have to discuss or process those events, but rather be given the opportunity to focus on a different topic, if even for a little while, gave them a necessary break from the media onslaught going on around them.

Don’t be so quick to embrace pop culture

Lots of  teachers find it’s easier to capture student interest if they encourage students to draw connections between the world outside the classroom and the current topic and subject matter. While this is well intentioned and highly motivating for the students, I suggest that teachers use it from time to time, but not constantly. It’s good for the children to know that there are academic topics that don’t revolve around the movie or recording star of the moment.

Integrate media literacy

Regardless of your subject matter and curriculum expectations, all teachers should spend some time fostering an understanding of media literacy in their students. We live in a mass-market, advertising-focused world and it’s very important for our students to know what companies are doing to attract their attention and win their business. PBS has an excellent initiative called “Don’t Buy It” that addresses this subject for students, parents and teachers.

Our recent tremendous jumps in technology have created both opportunities and pitfalls for teachers, parents and students. As a classroom teacher, you are uniquely positioned to not only make good use of this technology, but also to help parents and students make sense of the tremendous impact, both positive and negative, that this can have on their lives.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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