How The News Can Impact Students

Students at Akron's Seiberling Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Amy Hansen/StateImpact Ohio.
Students at Akron's Seiberling Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Amy Hansen/StateImpact Ohio.

Over the buzz of excitement that tends to accompany the last day of school before a long holiday break, a group of six students shuffled into a small, brightly lit room off of the library at Seiberling Elementary School.

They each plopped down in a tan plastic chair, and after a little prodding, they began to rattle off a few of the big headlines they noticed during the past year.

"The Ebola disease, this man, he said he couldn't breathe, LeBron James coming back," the students said.

The Ebola virus outbreak, the death of Eric Garner, and basketball superstar LeBron James' return to Cleveland.

These young Akron students aren't alone in keeping up with current events.

According to a 2012 survey of more than 200 elementary students in California, roughly 83 percent said they watched television news, and seventy-seven percent of that group admitted the act left them feeling scared.

The students at Seiberling also said they thought news in 2014 was sad.

"Did you hear about the news story of the, um, that little kid who got shot at the park by a police officer," asked 11-year-old Bonnie, who's in fifth grade.

She's talking about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer late last year.

When it comes to those kinds of serious inquires, school principal Megan Mannion has become well-versed at fielding the best responses during her more than 20 years as an educator.

"How I handle it is, I usually ask questions," she said. "So, how does that pertain to you? What would you do?"

That act of talking for students who do express concerns is vital, according to Caroyln Landis, a child psychologist with Cleveland's University Hospitals.

That's because concepts necessary to understand the news--like distance, time, and probability--are tricky for developing brains to fully grasp.

"They don't understand that some things are very rare occurrences, that will hardly ever happen, because they think 'it may be rare, but it still could happen to me,'" she said.

While principal Mannion says families should be the first to initiate discussions, she admits the conversations often can cross into classrooms.

When that happens, she stresses the importance of listening.

"You don't want to dismiss what kids have to say, because this is something they're concerned about," she said. "It's important to listen to kids, and not just talk at them all the time."

Take, for example, the attack on the World Trade Centers in 2001.

While a recent Washington Post article reports there's an incredibly low likelihood that Americans will die due to a terrorist attack, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine found more than a third of parents nationwide reported their kids experienced some type of stress-like having trouble concentrating or losing their tempers-after learning about 9/11.

Parents also reported those symptoms increased as their children watched more television coverage.

Psychologist Landis says the effects of the news can be wide-reaching.

"It can affect their sleep, which can affect their emotional functioning, which can affect their academic functioning, which can then kind of snowball to really have an impact on their life," she said.

Of course, every student is different.

A first-grader may not need to be as aware of current headlines as a sixth grader, and some students may not be affected by news at all, while just one issue can be a red-flag for those who are naturally more anxious.

With so many possible student reactions, principal Mannion says it's crucial for educators themselves to be aware of current events.

But while there's not a cookie-cutter example of how to deal with a child's news consumption, most experts recommend curbing news intake for younger students, while monitoring the news older kids are exposed to.

For StateImpact Ohio, I'm Amy Hansen.

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