A devastating earthquake, mass evacuations from tropical storms and wildfires, political violence—bad things happen in our world, and they permeate the classroom, whether teachers would like them to or not. Students want to talk about these difficult subjects, and teachers need to know how to navigate these discussions. Here are some tips culled from the experts to help teachers handle these sometimes challenging conversations.
Your natural inclination may be to shield younger students from bad news. But in today's world, that can be extremely difficult. It can also exaggerate the issue at hand; the American Psychological Association cautions that when tragic events are left unaddressed, "a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults' silence."
Further Reading: Education Around the World: What I've Learned from Teachers in Other Countries
Letting students know you are available and supportive is important. While you can make no guarantees to students, you can reassure them and help them feel safe. If a young student seems particularly upset, be sure to contact the student's family and let school administrators and social workers know, so they are aware and can extend help.
As Learning for Justice notes, "Misinformation always spreads rapidly after a crisis." As educators, it's our responsibility to ensure students have access to good information and the skill sets to navigate and process it.
It's important for teachers to clarify facts and dispel rumors to the best of their ability. Different news outlets can feature varying and rapidly changing reports. Be honest and explain to students not all information may currently be available. Encourage and train them to use a critical eye on a story as it's developing. Review the facts with students and dispel any inaccuracies or gray areas. Answer students' questions as accurately and honestly as possible. This sometimes means telling them, "I don't know."
Connect and Protect
Often, a student's major concern—whether the incident is global or local—is their safety.
Ensure your classroom is a safe space. Listen to students' fears and be a calming influence. Keep to a schedule. Be aware of how students may be differently affected by what's happening. Also, try to understand they may act out or be off-task at times. Share information about self-care with students, and consider taking an alternative approach to addressing behaviors that may normally call for disciplinary action.
The Mental Health Foundation warns that students can become fixated on a news story, repeatedly searching coverage and seeking more and more information, and that can have a negative impact on a young person's mental health.
Providing some guidelines to engage with news stories healthfully and responsibly can help students self-regulate and maintain perspective. Recommend students limit their time on news sources and social media, and instead teach them how to curate their news consumption so they can lower their stress.
Create an Action Plan
Learning for Justice also recommends helping students "translate feelings of hopelessness into opportunities to respond with productive action." Figure out how your class can help survivors and families who have experienced the trauma.
A few years ago, when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, my students became part of a city-wide effort to send supplies to that area. They collected clothing, toiletries, diapers, and other necessities to send to the families affected the most. This not only helps students cope with difficult news, but it is an important educational opportunity to help them embrace their own agency and explore their roles in the world around them.
Support Student Activism
Students may want to get involved even further in helping with specific causes. Encourage them to educate themselves on the issues they want to support, using national groups as models and sources for further information. Urge students to create an action plan focusing on the steps they could take to make a positive impact.
Last year, when the rate of hate crimes against Asian American Pacific Islander communities increased, a teacher at my school created an Asian American student association to not only support Asian American Pacific Islander students but to work with them to effect meaningful change.
Recognize Differing Opinions
Many traumatic issues happening in the world can generate negative stereotypes, hostile feelings, and strong opinions. Ensure your classroom is a safe discussion space, where students refer to reliable sources, fact-check, ask questions to clarify intent, avoid absolutes, and respect each other's differing opinions.
Reinforce and model behavior that enables and requires students to demonstrate respect, show sensitivity to the differences of others, and have an openness to various perspectives. Help students understand they are entitled to and have a responsibility for maintaining an environment of civility, free from disparagement, intimidation, discrimination, harassment, and violence of any kind.
Remember Your Role
It is important to remember that teachers are not trained counselors or social workers. If a student in your class seems to be struggling with the impact of a disturbing event, be sure to follow protocols to get the student the help they need. That may mean contacting a school administrator, social worker, or mental health expert.
Further Reading: Change the World by Incorporating Empathy into Your Teaching
With a wealth of information (and misinformation) at their fingertips, today's students will be aware that the world can be a dangerous place, and they will be affected by the bad things happening both locally and globally. Teachers can help clarify events for students, provide safe spaces, and work to ensure their students continue to learn, grow, help, and heal.