Tips On Explaining The Storm To Young Ones

Millions of Americans are dealing with the aftermath of Sandy, including the responsibility of comforting children who may not have a frame of reference for the storm. For tips on helping kids cope, host Michel Martin speaks with Suzanne McCabe of Scholastic's classroom magazines. The magazines cover the aftermath of all kinds of disasters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to talk more about Sandy now. That's the superstorm that just blasted the East Coast earlier this week because millions of Americans are still without basic amenities, like power and public transportation and on top of adult worries, real ones like getting the water out of their houses and getting to work, if they have little people at home, they also have the added responsibility of calming the anxieties of youngsters who may have no frame of reference for what just happened.

So we decided to give Suzanne McCabe a call. She is editor-at-large for Scholastic's classroom magazines. The magazines are all about trying to present important information to kids from pre-K to high school age in a way that they can understand. They've covered the aftermath of all kinds of disasters, from tsunamis and earthquakes to hurricanes and blizzards and Suzanne McCabe is with us once again.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

SUZANNE MCCABE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: But before we get to the subject at hand, how are you doing? I understand that you and family live in the New York/New Jersey area, which was pretty hard hit. Are you OK? Everybody OK?

MCCABE: Yes. I'm fine. I'm fine. We got my mother out of New Jersey before the storm, where we live on the Jersey Shore, so we feel very grateful that we did so because my town was very hard hit.

MARTIN: I'm sorry to hear that, obviously. Our thoughts are with her and everybody in that area, so...

MCCABE: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...I'm glad everybody's OK.

MCCABE: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, professionally, as editor-at-large of classroom magazines, as we mentioned, you have the responsibility of synthesizing things like this that happen and you do this for students all over the country. And I wanted to ask if you have some general guidelines that you go to when you think about how to present this information.

Like, one thing that occurred to me is that, in adult media, we almost always start with the worst thing, the death toll, for example. Are there things that you always start with and are there things that you deliberately avoid?

MCCABE: We present the facts in a way that's age-appropriate for the readers, so how we would handle a tragedy or a natural disaster for third graders is very different than how we would do so for high school students. We don't sugarcoat the information, but we do so in a way that our readers can grasp and that's not overwhelming and we try to present the perspective of young people who have been through the situation, whether it is a natural disaster or a war or whatever and have them, you know, talk about their experiences and how they came through.

MARTIN: Our colleague at WNYC New York, Brian Lehrer, had a guest on his show who helped him out in trying to explain some of this. I'll just play a short clip of that.

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KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Big Bird's nest got ruined, but we got to help put Big Bird's nest back together again. Elmo was with his mommy and daddy, so Elmo asked a lot of questions and learned a lot about what was happening. The windows were moving and stuff, but - and - they said, yes. It will calm down and everything will be OK.

MARTIN: I don't know if Elmo's been interviewed for some of the classroom magazines, but who are some of the people that you could go to or who you would interview?

MCCABE: We often interview young people who are the age of our readers and, in fact, at Scholastic, we have kids around the country ages 10 to 14 who have been reporting on the news. So, here with Hurricane Sandy, we had a student in Lower Manhattan and then a boy on the Upper West Side and they were writing for us about their experiences. Other than that, we, of course, go to - we would, in this case, a meteorologist or local officials, to tell us how they're helping communities bounce back.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're talking about how to talk with kids about coping with natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy that just blasted the East Coast earlier this week. Our guest is Suzanne McCabe, editor-at-large for Scholastic's classroom magazines. These news magazines are geared toward kids pre-K to high school, and have a lot of experience in explaining disasters.

What are some of the common questions and issues that kids do talk about when they talk about these kinds of things?

MCCABE: They always want to pitch in. They want to find out how they can get involved. They'll write in or they'll want to donate money or have a car wash or do something where they can help victims at a time like this.

And, otherwise, I think they just want to be reassured that they're going to be OK. With this situation, I think they have been aware of more the severity of storms and how they're becoming more frequent and more severe and they're caring more about the climate, I think, you know, as a general statement, beyond just the immediate here.

MARTIN: With kids, you can imagine where, after a storm like this, they might be afraid of thunder or lightning or, you know, high winds or something like that. Do you have any advice about how you can talk to kids about that if you see them experiencing fears and anxieties after the fact?

MCCABE: Parents should be sensitive to that and ask the kids how they feel and maybe what would make them feel safer or safest. And with younger children, I think reading reassuring stories to them before they go to sleep, limiting the amount of television they watch so they don't see graphic images and just letting them know that everything is being done to make sure that they're safe and sound.

MARTIN: What about kids who may have lost a favorite toy or animal or what my kids call their memories? You know, like rocks that they collected on the beach, vacation or something like that and may have lost them in haste or if they had to evacuate or something like that or lost in water? I remember after Hurricane Katrina you did a lot of stories like that. What would you say in that situation?

MCCABE: It can be a time where the child learns that life is about loss. We can't take that out of the equation, and if they can overcome it and feel that they can move on from that point, I think it reassures them and lets them know that they can face the next challenge.

MARTIN: And it goes without saying that there are some kids who will have lost family members or friends or neighbors. Do you talk about that in the magazine?

MCCABE: Yes, we do. And, certainly, loss is horrible for anyone, but I think when it's associated with trauma, the effects do rise exponentially. I've seen that in my own life with 9/11, where my family and community were hit very hard. So, certainly the sense of community is so important. That's what gets you through. Beyond that, I mean, of course, you would want to seek help, you know, if you see your child really suffering and you feel that it's something you can't cope with yourself. Turning to a counselor at school or a clergy member would also be a helpful way for the child to express how he or she feels and the trauma they're going through.

MARTIN: What would you want people who are not directly affected to take away from this experience and from thinking about it and reading about it and hearing about it?

MCCABE: I think it's always great to donate to the Red Cross and organizations that help people, you know, who need meals, that need a place to stay, but also take very seriously when there are plans to evacuate or to take precautions. Don't dismiss those and reassure your children frequently, you know, that there is a plan. Involve them in how they can participate and that they'll feel safe and secure and also that, when they help others, they'll know that someone will be there for them in their time of need.

MARTIN: Suzanne McCabe is editor-at-large for Scholastic's classroom magazines and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Suzanne McCabe, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

MCCABE: Thank you, Michel.

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MARTIN: Just ahead, it is Native American Heritage Month and we are learning more about the history and culture of this country's first people. But who exactly falls under that category?

ANTON TREUER: This is an issue that's somewhat contested in Indian country. If you talk to 10 different people, you may even get 10 different answers.

MARTIN: We talk about Native American identity and that's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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MARTIN: We all know about the bow and arrow. It's an ancient tool for hunting and sports, but one author says it's also his inspiration for a more spiritual and simple life. The author of "The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage" talks about the life lessons he's learned from his Lakota ancestors. That's in Faith Matters and it's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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