In our bustling society, opportunities for direct communication and intimacy are increasingly precious, and we might get out of the habit of careful listening and observing. The moments a child of mine once called "a piece of quiet" are few and far between as television and videos bombard us with so-called relaxation. It's easy to forget about the over-stimulation a child may receive from a violent image on the nightly news or a furtive peek at an explicit scene in a serial drama.

In addition to major life events that occur in the natural course of children's growth and development, teachers also face the reality that divorce, sex, violence, drugs, abuse, and death have become familiar issues in children's lives, both in and out of school.

From the death of a favorite class pet to more serious issues, teachers are expected to know what to say and how to respond to children's concerns and confusion. And there is no easy "how to" for teachers and parents seeking help in talking with children about tough topics. Adults face formidable odds in trying to converse meaningfully with youngsters, but our task will be easier if we try to remain honest without providing an overwhelming amount of information.

Here are some guidelines to help you cope with the challenge.

Watch children's actions and listen closely to their questions. This will help you know what they are thinking and feeling, wondering about, and looking for from you.

Understand what children can digest at various ages and stages. When children hear, see, or are told information beyond their capacity to comprehend, they usually end up with a mound of misinformation. Explanations geared to a child's developmental level build understanding and encourage questions.

Use children's books as tools for discussion. Although we are surrounded by incessant visual stimulation, we can also rely on the tremendous power of story and the written word. Children's books are, among their other joys, immensely powerful vehicles for discussion. Think of books as tools, and use them to help you respond to young children.

Remember that families each have their own specific feelings and values in regard to complex issues. When tough topics arise in school, parents should be contacted and consulted. Together, you can come up with appropriate information and approaches that are comfortable for all.