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How to talk to kids about the riots at the nation's Capitol

Dr. Tracy Alloway said let the child you're talking to explain what they are feeling and what they're thinking.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Kerry Burke-McCloud just started the Shakespeare unit with his 9th and 10th grade English classes. The 9th grade students are reading "Romeo and Juliet," while the 10th graders are reading "Macbeth." 

"Both of which deal with this idea of, this motif of unbridled power," Burke-McCloud said. "I feel that students need to see relevance in what they're learning, and they see relevance by making real world connections with what is going on in the world."

Burke-McCloud connected his Shakespeare lesson plans to the events at the nation's Capitol over the past week. First, he told them what happened and gave them a chance to share their thoughts. 

“I said, 'I don't want to color your perception. So, I'm going to tell you what happened.' And I told them, 'There were people. They arrived at the Capitol. It was the first time there was an attack on the Capitol in the last 200 years,'" Burke-McCloud said.

Then, he connected it to the lesson.

“I would ask them, you know, 'Where does the power lie.' This unbridled power, this idea of unbridled power. Does it lie with the people, and is that causing the issue?" he asked his students.

"Or does it lie with, you know, somebody who is put in a position of power, like Macbeth? Or you have others like Macduff and Banquo, who are actively fighting this system, and I feel like it would be doing a disservice to them to give them the answer," Burke-McCloud said. "So, I like to have them decide, well, where does the power lie. And then we can have a more enriching discussion about that."

Psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway said that is exactly what you should do when talking about the Capitol riots with kids: Listen. 

"It's important to realize that sometimes when you explain things, this could sometimes be interpreted as a negative approach," Alloway said. "What you want to do is create an open space, and engage in what psychologists called active listening. So, allow your child a chance to explain what they are feeling, what they're thinking, what they have heard, instead of being so quick to explain exactly what's happening."

Stephanie Szymczyk is a school counselor with Duval County Pubic Schools. She seconded Alloway's advice. 

"I think we have to be active listeners first and foremost and that involves asking the students, the children, 'first of all, how does this make you feel,'" Szymczyk said. "'What are you feeling about the events that happened,' and kind of tackling it from a socio emotional point of view," Szymczyk said.

Szymczyk said she has had students come talk to her about the riots at the Capitol. She said they've talked about how the riots at the Capitol are affecting them, their friendships and their families. 

Alloway said also keep in mind the age of the child. If it is a young child, stick with concrete, emotional words like asking, "Do you feel nervous?" or "Do you feel angry?" For middle school children, she said keep it open ended and ask, "How do you feel?"

“Another approach is to also ask them what would they do if they were in that position, so it encourages that other person perspective, and empathy," Alloway said. "The third thing to keep in mind is to not try to introduce your own biases when you have this conversation, and keep the discussion focused on the actions rather than the person."

Burke-McCloud said he will continue to do just that as he talks to his students in the coming weeks about the events in the country. 

"I very much believe in trauma-informed teaching where our students especially, you know, my students, who I teach, we're at a title one school," Burke-McCloud explained. "So, a lot of them have own have their own traumas." 

"I wanted to make sure that they understood, and understand, that they are loved, and that their opinions and feelings are valid," he added.