FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Sharess Harrell can relate to her kindergarten students, many whose parents have been deployed.
Harrell — who teaches at a school where 75 percent of the students come from military families — is expecting her first child in August, and her husband, an Army parachute rigger, has just been called to duty.
Harrell and teachers across the nation are faced with the difficult task of what to tell children about war.
But Harrell, 29, sees the talks as therapeutic for both her and the youngsters.
"They're really a comforting source," she said. "They understand a lot more than we give them credit for."
But anxiety can make children erupt in tears at any time. When that happens, Harrell tries to address the fear immediately — even in the middle of a lesson.
"Otherwise it will just eat away at them," she said. "This isn't something you can brush under the rug."
Harrell moved from Texas to North Carolina in August when her husband enlisted in the Army after serving in the National Guard for seven years. She doesn't know where her husband has been deployed or how long he'll be gone.
Her young pupils at Bill Hefner Elementary School are accustomed to their parents' deployments and frequent moves.
"Our kids are so resilient because they've lived in so many places and have made so many friends," said Denise Holmes, a guidance counselor at Hefner.
Still, she said, "It's hard for a little kid to know why his dad is gone."
Kyng Mayberry and other first-grade students from Hefner entertained parents at a PTA meeting last week. The group, wearing paper hats and white shirts with sponge-painted red and blue stars, sang patriotic songs for about 300 people.
But he wasn't quite sure about the specific reasons for the show.
"We were singing for the flag and the war," Kyng said. "We don't want it to be like when two planes crashed into buildings."
He has a similarly vague grasp of what his father, an Army X-ray technician, is doing overseas.
"His job is to help other people who get hurt," the 7-year-old said.
Holmes has started a group called Tuff Stuff for children in kindergarten through second grade who have a parent — sometimes two — who have been deployed. A second guidance counselor works with the older students.
"I tell the kids: 'You're tough, you will be OK. We are in this together, we support each other and we care about each other,'" Holmes said.
She reminds the students that their parents are "doing their jobs to keep us safe. They have been trained and they know what to do. We need to feel proud of what they're doing."
Sometimes a student will say something like, "My dad uses big guns," which scares other children.
That's why Holmes discourages their parents from letting the children watch the news.
Principal Brenda Bethea agrees. Children see the same footage replayed multiple times and mistake it for new attacks, she said.
They may not appear to be affected at first, Holmes said. "They come to school and think about it. They tell something to another child and the other child adds something to it and it grows."
This week the students will create bulletin boards titled "Saluting Our Heroes," with pictures of loved ones overseas, letters, poems and drawings. Students in many classrooms are already corresponding with troops.
"Every time we hear of a new place (where troops are), we go to the map," second-grade teacher Heather Clive said. "They think they're down the block or around the corner. That helps put things in perspective."