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May 2001
April 2001
New York City
May 2001

Speaking to Young Children about Death and Dying
by Tarima Levine

The 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 of death.

Give children short responses to their questions, allowing them to slowly process information about death and formulate their own inquiries.

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 hurt..”

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.

Ms. Levine is a teacher at the Bank Street Family Center.


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