Lania Fitzpatrick, a smiling 4-year-old who likes purses and shoes, said she was playing a game called lollipop outside her Dorchester home earlier this year when she saw a man fire a gun into the driver's-side window of a parked car.
"Everybody got scared because he pulled out the gun in front of everybody," Lania said in an interview at her neighborhood school Monday. "We thought he would shoot somebody."
Hers is but one heartbreaking story routinely shared by the preschoolers who attend a Dorchester program known as PeaceZone, which is designed to encourage 3- and 4-year-olds to open up about the neighborhood violence they witness with alarming regularity. The children talk about it, the teachers said, with disconcerting candor.
"There's no monsters anymore," said Althea Robinson, a preschool teacher at the center. "There's kids killing each other. That's the new monster."
At the Crispus Attucks Children's Center, where the program is taught, Lania and her classmates are learning strategies to make sense of violent occurrences in their homes and neighborhoods. The children, the youngest ever to take part in the program, are meeting in classrooms less than a mile from the apartment where an 8-year-old boy died this week in what police say was an accidental shooting by his 7-year-old cousin.
Robinson's students made chirping sounds as she handed out "self-control birds," yellow plastic eagles, each with a splash of purple, pink, or green. Robinson drew out the phrase self-control and repeated it until the students quieted. Then, Jamari Brewster, 3, piped up.
"Elijah touched my bird," Jamari said.
"Tell him how that makes you feel," Robinson advised.
"I don't like that," Jamari told Elijah DeRosa-Hampton, 3.
The students balanced their birds' noses on their fingertips, elbows, and knees.
In a soothing voice, Robinson said, "Self," and her students replied, "Control."
"What do we do when we're angry?" Robinson asked.
"Count to 10," answered 4-year-old Deven Buchanan.
Ten years ago, schools that implemented the curriculum were compared with similar schools without it.
The comparison yielded positive results: The children who had gone through the program had fewer fights and expressed fewer symptoms of depression, said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, associate dean of Harvard School of Public Health.
"Interestingly, the PeaceZone is unique, in that it takes traditional character-building, conflict resolution skills and merges them with skills of healing from trauma," Prothrow-Stith said.
Betsy McAlister Groves, project director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, said the hospital sees roughly 150 families, in which half the children are under age 6.
Although most participants come to counseling after being affected by domestic violence, the hospital sees the ripple effects of increased violence on city streets, such as more referrals of children who have witnessed shootings.
"We always have a waiting list," Groves said.
The notion that children are too young to be affected by brushes with violence is a common misconception, Groves said. Instead, she said, it can shake their basic trust in the world and shatter the belief that adults can protect them.
"Our concern is that kids grow up with a distorted sense of themselves and the world and what's safe and what's dangerous," Groves said. "They are chronically fearful and they may use violent behavior later in life because it's what they've grown up with."
With increased neighborhood violence, said Lesley E. Christian, the Crispus Attucks president and CEO, children noticed makeshift shrines on street corners but didn't talk about how they felt about the memorials .
"The media only picks up on the most outrageous crimes, but this stuff is pervasive," Christian said. "It's literally all around us."
Some children said they have trouble sleeping at night because they hear gunshots outside. Many witness events that they are too young to understand.
"Sometimes, when all the police is going around everybody's house, I go by the window," 4-year-old Amya Gordon said in an interview at the school. "They go to people's houses and break things. They shoot anybody, and they're mean."
A teacher reminded the children of a police officer they call Officer Friendly, prompting Amya to change her mind.
"They're helping us when people be bad and put people in jail," Amya said.