This post is by guest author Sarah Bassett. Ms. Bassett will graduate in May 2023 from the University of Vermont as a certified teacher in grades K-3, and in this post she describes how the Four Question Method can help teachers talk about tough topics with students in the early grades.

As someone who is in my senior year of my undergraduate teacher preparation program in PreK-3rd grade education, the never-ending negative news about the education world can be discouraging. I am a fixer; someone who wants to solve problems and make things better. Being the curious person I am, I am always poking my mentor teachers to tell me more of why teaching is hard right now. It is often a mix of things: no time for planning, not enough paraprofessionals for the kids who need them, mandatory assessments that take up all the instructional time. But a repeated concern that I have heard from nearly every teacher I have spoken to is, “Trying to talk to the kids about the ‘hard stuff.’” When asked about ways to do so, the answer is often “I just don’t.” 

Addressing Tough Topics in the Early Grades

It’s cheesy, but I always envisioned myself as a teacher who would change lives for good. I have been in my teacher preparation program during years marked by a pandemic, equality movements, polarizing elections, ongoing racism and injustice, and school shootings. Every piece of painful news makes me want to go into my classroom the next day and make the next generation better: more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more confident in the face of injustice and hardship. In my experience, social studies in primary education usually consists of lessons about creating maps, the Pilgrims, and MLK’s I Have A Dream. There is nothing wrong with these topics, but knowing the importance of high-quality social studies instruction, it feels unfair to my students to not provide them with the time and space to think critically about all events, including the stories that don’t have happy endings. I whole-heartedly believe that young children are intelligent, competent, and capable humans, but it can be difficult to even know where to begin teaching trickier topics. 

Coincidentally, in my social studies education seminar in college this past week, our topic was “How do we talk to young children about difficult things?” After my professor fought back tears while telling us about teaching after 9/11, we listed other examples from both the past and present. We brought up topics as broad as slavery and as specific as the recent Uvalde shooting. The class opened to discussion on our essential question, but no one knew where to begin. 

If you haven’t figured it out already, my dad is Jon Bassett. I have watched the growth and development of 4QM from the beginning. I wrote in 2020 about how it helped me with my own college social studies classes, and I have been eager to see how 4QM can help my own teaching and my students’ learning. I broke the ice in my seminar by talking about my dad’s method using four questions, and began to think out loud with the group about how it could help here. While at first the focus was elsewhere (“your dad wrote a book?!?”), my cohort and I began to see how the 4QM could be a missing piece in helping us to address difficult topics with elementary school students.

We used the example of the Holocaust – a tragic and devastating event that none of us could think of how to explain to a seven-year-old. I quickly realized that the 4QM could give our young learners the right information that they’d need to make sense of a topic like that, and could help teachers give them the right amount of information. Like I said before, I truly believe in young children’s abilities as capable learners. Nevertheless, I don’t think my second graders are developmentally ready, nor is it necessary for them to dive deeply into some of these troubling topics. Thinking about the Holocaust and using the 4QM model, we realized young students could walk away with the following simple information: What happened? Hitler and the Nazis killed many Jewish people. What were they thinking? Hitler had mean thoughts about Jews, and he acted on them. Why then and there? This happened during a time of war, when many people were suffering and being killed. What do we think about that? The Holocaust is recognized as one of the world’s greatest tragedies. We think it’s wrong to treat people badly because of their religion or race.

Is that absolutely everything that a seven-year-old might want to know about the Holocaust? No. They might want some more details, and kids are naturally curious. But there’s a conceptual framework that teachers can lean on to build these tougher conversations and lessons. 

Elementary Students Need Social Studies Too

In an elementary school world with little or no high quality social studies curriculum, tools like the 4QM are critical for helping teachers to raise strong thinkers and students who have an understanding of the world around them. Elementary teachers should reconsider teaching the “hard stuff,” and know that there is a system that can support those discussions. 

By this time next year I hope to have my own classroom, and I plan to make space for these conversations and explorations. Using the 4QM makes the idea of leading those conversations feel easier and more manageable, and I am eager to put it into practice.