to Young Children about Death and Dying
concepts of death and dying rarely find their way into toddler
or preschool curriculum. Although we don’t want to conceive of
young children having to cope with death, there is a possibility
that it will happen, such as with a pet or grandparent, and teachers
need to be prepared for what to say.
Developmentally, toddlers and preschoolers have a limited capacity
to understand the permanency of death. They engage in magical
thinking, which means they believe their behavior can cause events.
Preschoolers may state contradictory statements, saying, “When
Spot died his body stopped working. But he still likes to wag
his tail.” Children might understand the phrase, “Spot is not
coming back,” but not realize that this time period lasts forever.
Although the concept of death is unclear for preschoolers, they
do know that it is related to feeling sad and separation. Feelings
surrounding death mean something different for every child in
the classroom. For example, if a child in the classroom is dealing
with divorce in the family, separation will probably be the topic
he or she uses to understand death. Thus, when planning death
curriculum it is important to tailor activities to meet the needs
of all the children. It is also important to keep the consistent
routine of the classroom schedule. While struggling with the unfamiliar
concept of death, children need to feel a sense of security and
stability in the predictability of school life.
Here are guidelines to keep in mind when broaching the concept
of death with young children:
Provide clear and concrete information. You might say, “Spot wasn’t
looking when he crossed the street and a taxi hit him. Spot went
to the hospital but the doctor could not make his body work, so
Spot died. He can’t bark, move, or eat anymore.”
Avoid attaching words such as “sleep” or “sick” to the concept
Give children short responses to their questions, allowing them
to slowly process information about death and formulate their
Let children know that it is okay to cry and feel sad and anger
about the death.
Reassure children that they are safe and cared for. You might
say, “Usually doctors are able to make you better when you get
Have a good-bye or memorial ceremony.
Show children ways to help cope with the loss. You can make a
book about the animal or person with photographs and the things
he or she enjoyed doing.
Provide children with materials to play out their interpretations
and feelings about death, such as doctor’s kits, baby dolls, puppets,
paper and crayons, and vehicles.
Relate death to the lifecycle. Do planting with children and study
the process of the plants, beginning, middle and end of life.
Spontaneous conversations that occur while children are engaged
in activities will alert teachers about the children’s understanding
and interpretation of death. Teachers will use these “teachable
moments” to support children’s thoughts and to correct mistaken
beliefs. Preschoolers need lots of repetition to help them process
the concept of death, and teachers should allow them to explore
materials and express their thoughts at their own pace. Teachers
also need to be aware of children’s non-verbal reactions to death,
observing their body language, facial expression, and atypical
behavior, such as changes in their eating or napping pattern.
Levine is a teacher at the Bank Street Family Center.
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