Professor Richard Woolley is a Professor of Education and Inclusion at the University of Worcester, and Deputy Head of its School of Education. Richard's professional and research interests cover inclusion, diversity and equality, including the personal and social development of children, values and issues in primary education, religious education and special educational needs provision. In this post he discusses the challenge of answering difficult questions from children.

Whilst most children are off school in the coming weeks the ways in which they interact with their friends and family members are going to be different. Some families will spend much more time with each other than usual, and whilst this might lead to some special times together it will also inevitably lead to tensions at others.

Difficult questions

During this time, children may have the opportunity to ask some of the difficult questions that have been on their minds and that perhaps they have not had the chance to share before. Parents and carers might be concerned about this for various reasons including wondering whether questions are appropriate to the age of the child or their stage of development, wondering what an appropriate answer might be, or feeling embarrassed by the question itself.

A child is looking through binoculars. He is surrounded by text saying, What? Why? Who?

It is important that whichever of us face a difficult question from a child, we do not need to feel that we have all the answers. In fact we don’t!

Using a child’s question as a way of finding out together, asking them some further questions to see what their own views and understanding are, or valuing their question and saying you’d like some time to think about it and will discuss it later are all ways of treating their question in a positive way without feeling unduly pressured.

Of course adult prompts can help children to consider their ideas and views, “How do you feel about…?” “What do you know about…?” and “Have  you ever thought about…?” can be ways of testing out what a child knows on an issue, without sharing content for which they may not yet be ready.

Young children playing with colourful toys

My research with trainee primary school teachers in the final year of their courses suggests that they have apprehensions about facing some controversial or sensitive issues with children.

When asked which three issues they anticipated finding most difficult to address in school 91% identified one or more issues relating to relationships, allied to Relationships and Sex Education (sexual orientation, growing up, puberty, diverse families or homophobia), 57.5% identified one or more issues relating to anti-racist and multicultural education (including British Values, community or social cohesion, terrorism and the Prevent agenda) and 33% identified bereavement as an area of concern.

All the areas identified relate to how we interact with one another, how we understand each other’s differences and how we cope with change. Those working in educational or childcare settings, carers, parents and other may wish to consider how these apprehensions compare with their own.

Mother helping child hang coat up at nursery

One way of exploring such issues is through the use of children’s picture books. This can provide a means of discussing sensitive topics with children without needing to speak directly about issues personal to them or their family. This distancing technique helps to explore matters “one step removed” looking at the experience of others and questioning how they might feel or what decisions they might make.

Examples of high quality picture books can be found in three resource packs developed by Janice Morris, Teaching Resources Collection Librarian at Bishop Grosseteste University, and myself. Each resource pack is freely available to download and provides a description and evaluation of each book, with indexes grouping them by topic or theme.

The Family Diversities Reading Resource (2nd edition) can be downloaded via this link and includes over 150 high quality picture books suitable for children across the primary phase of education. These books include families with one or two parents, carers, families experiencing separation through divorce, bereavement or distance, children living in public care and adoptive families, to name a few.

Examples of the books in the resource

The Family Book - Todd Parr, Megan Tingley Books - 2003

This book outlines different kinds of family using bold and bright illustrations and short sentences. It considers “what all families do” as well as considering the difference between families. It affirms that all families are special in different ways.

If I Had a Hundred Mummies - Vanda Carter, Onlywomen Press - 2006

This book explores the joys and the nightmares of having a hundred mums. There would be a hundred bedtime stories and a hundred hugs, but also a hundred people reminding you to tidy your room! It ends with the reflection that a hundred mummies are not needed, just “the two I’ve got.” Of course there are many reasons for having two mums, including a birth and an adoptive mum, one parent remarrying, or mum having a female partner. The book works very well when read aloud as the rhyme makes it appealing to the ear. The illustrations are vibrant and eye-catching.

Mirror - Jeannie Baker, Walker Books - 2010

This is a picture book accessible to a range of ages. It is really two books that show family life in Morocco and Australia respectively. Both stories can be explored in parallel by folding out the pages opposite each other. With no text there is a great deal to discuss and to deduce from the pictures. Children may wish to reflect on how their families and homes are similar to, and different from, those pictured.

Rosie Revere, Engineer - Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, Abrams Books for Young Readers - 2013

This book introduces Rosie, who is inspired by all the “junk” she finds around her. She is always using her imagination to be creative, to design and to make. Rosie has positive role models from other generations within her family who have challenged traditional gender stereotypes. Her aunt teaches her that failure is a part of the learning process and a platform on which to build future success. Again, this is a rhyming story which works well when read aloud. The detailed illustrations are well worth careful exploration.

Sources of support

If you are facing interesting and challenging questions from children at this time you could look to:

  • Offers of help/advice being made by teachers online, for example via Facebook
  • Mumsnet.com, which includes discussion pages and the opportunity to share advice
  • Winstonswish.org, which provides advice and support for children facing bereavement
  • Youngminds.org.uk, supporting children’s mental health and well-being

A wider selection of picture books are available in the Disability Reading Resource which includes a range of stories that include people with a variety of disabilities and where the focus is on the story rather than the disability. The Transitions Reading Resource  includes a wide variety of changes that children may experience and which may cause them questions, for example a change in family structure, moving house or changing school, the change that comes through bereavement, changing friends and even changing your mind. Some of these books may be useful in supporting children in these times of change and challenge. Many of the books in these three collections are available at The Hive, Worcester’s joint university and public library, and all are readily available either through bookshops and online retailers.

Professor Richard Woolley is a Professor of Education and Inclusion at the University of Worcester, and Deputy Head of its School of Education. The School of Education offers many Undergraduate and Postgraduate courses including Primary Initial Teacher Education (with QTS) BA Hons and Primary and Secondary  PGCE Courses.

All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.