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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
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Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Blog

Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Elizabeth Topliffe

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."

--Fred Rogers, aka "Mr. Rogers"

Stepping Stones is not a school. It is a community. We are a community made by families.  Made by staff members. Made by families who came before us.

Our community counts its membership in the community of Grand Rapids. We belong to the community of Michigan. We are citizens of North America and the world.

Yesterday, we were confronted again with a gun tragedy in the larger community of our country. Following only weeks behind the violent attacks in Paris and a week after the shooting in Colorado Springs, this event is making news across the nation.

The news is grim. We know that 14 people lost their lives yesterday and more were injured. Media outlets have also been reporting that in 2015, there have been more mass shootings than days of the year.

No words, no political theory, or psychological analysis can adequately explain these events. Our children are also exposed to the news and wonder what it all means. Then, our children look to us, their parents and teachers, to explain and to help them feel safe.  

It is an unfathomable task to explain to a child what we cannot understand ourselves. “How did this happen?” “Am I safe?” “Why do people use guns to kill?”

Earlier this year, Bob Van de Pol, from Pine Rest, trained our staff leadership in times of crisis. I thought it might be helpful to share what we learned. 

First, our responses to questions are given only if the questions arise. We know that not all of our children have learned about these events, and many of our Children's House friends are unaware of the events. The same is true for our infants and toddlers. For those children, we provide a safe environment where the day continues as normal. Safety and comfort comes in the form of routines and consistent adults.

With older children, our guides listen, observe and respond. If children bring it up, our guides respond to those questions.  Children in our Upper Elementary program have likely heard the news. Many of them follow the news for current events. They will want to process it through peer conversations. Our Upper Elementary guides are prepared for a community-wide discussion within the classroom.

In Lower Elementary, some of our friends will have heard about the events through family, neighbors, peers and news outlets. Other friends will have heard nothing. When there is a need to respond to children’s questions, we follow an approach that allows them to lead the conversation.

In allowing the child to lead the conversation, we utilize the ACT model—Acknowledge, Communicate and Transition.

1)      Acknowledge what the child has experienced/heard.  “What have you heard?”  “How do you feel?”

2)      Communicate accurate information in response to the child’s specific questions.  Do not share more than what was asked.

3)      Transition to next steps.  “What can we do?”  “How can we help?”

By opening the conversation to the child’s leadership, we offer the child an opportunity to express his feelings. We give her the comfort that comes from self-directed action, whether that is writing a letter to a politician or a note of comfort to a family. 

By bringing the child back to the transition of next steps, we emphasize that humans are resilient. Emphasizing resilience helps build even greater resilience. 

The note above from the great Fred Rogers is a wonderful reminder to all of us. In these situations, we all have the opportunity to be helpers. 

In choosing to help—by answering our children’s questions and by taking other action—we avoid becoming numb or allowing these events to become the things of daily life.

Thank you for choosing to be helpers. You are a great comfort to me. You are a great comfort to our staff. You are a great comfort to your children.

Best,

Elizabeth