Teachers must teach students about the science behind climate change. But they should also be aware that students may have difficult feelings around the crisis, advocates say.
Climate anxiety is a natural response to the real and existential threat of climate change, experts say, and it’s become increasingly prevalent among high schoolers and even middle schoolers. The term encompasses all the difficult emotions—anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt—that people can experience when confronting the climate crisis.
A recent EdWeek Research Center survey presented a nationally representative sample of teenagers a list of 11 emotions—ranging from angry to optimistic to uninterested—and asked them to select all that apply when they think about climate change and its effects. The top responses were “anxious,” “afraid,” “helpless,” and overwhelmed.”
Just 17 percent of the teenagers, who ranged in age from 14 to 18, said they felt optimistic. Only 8 percent said they were unconcerned.
The consequences of climate-related distress are profound for youth. The fear of climate change is influencing their decisions about where to attend college, whether to stay in their hometowns as adults, and even whether to have children. In severe cases, these feelings can adversely affect young people’s ability to function on a daily basis, experts say.
Yet experts say teachers and school counselors can help teenagers manage their emotions about climate change. Here are five ways educators can help address climate anxiety among students.
1. Listen to and validate teens’ emotions.
While climate change can be a difficult and uncomfortable subject, educators need to make space for students to talk about their feelings.
“What ends up happening very often—both in our personal experience, but what I’ve heard in talking with a lot of other people—is that teachers will often dismiss students who have significant anxiety from a lecture,” said Chelsey Goddard, a vice president at the Education Development Center who leads the global nonprofit’s health, mental health, and behavioral health work in the United States. “That’s not doing anybody any good.”
If a student doesn’t have the chance to talk through their questions and concerns in a safe space, they run the risk of feeling more isolated.
Instead, educators should validate students’ range of emotions around this issue, even if it doesn’t align with their own feelings, said Britt Wray, a human and planetary health postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has written a book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in the Climate Crisis.
“Have compassion for that and get curious about really trying to understand the granularity of what that climate anxiety feels like—how it can make a young person feel futureless and abandoned by older generations, which is profound psychological distress that can tear away at the social underpinnings of well-being,” she said.
2. Make space for students to connect and share with others feeling similarly.
School green teams or environmental clubs can be a source of support for students. And in some colleges and universities, counseling services have set up therapy groups on climate stress for students to share their feelings with others, the Washington Post has reported.
It can help to have “people with whom you can dwell on these emotions and explore them without fear of someone minimizing them or brushing the distress off as catastrophic thinking,” Wray said.
When students feel connected to others, they are less likely to feel isolated in their distress and more likely to feel motivated to take action, she noted.
“This is why we see so many youth activists who understand their climate anxiety extremely well and are very familiar with despair, articulating that the only thing that gets them out of bed and allows them to continue doing this work is the strength of their community connections and that feeling of being not isolated anymore,” Wray said.
Shai Fuxman, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, said the climate crisis is an opportunity for educators to teach about collective action: how to work with others toward a common goal.
“Not only will it help address climate change, but it’s a good skill for them to have anyway—to feel a part of something bigger can actually help build self-esteem,” he said. “Like, ‘I’m part of the movement and part of something that is happening to save our planet.’ I think it can be restoring, too, from a mental health perspective.”
3. Create opportunities for students to connect with nature.
One way to soothe the fear of a changing climate? Get outside, said Lian Zeitz, the co-founder and director of programs for the Climate Mental Health Network.
Research shows that spending time in nature can reduce stress. If students have opportunities to maintain a school garden or even simply go for a walk in the woods, they can develop a connection to and a love of the natural world, he said. They might also feel like they can be part of the solution to climate change.
“Time in nature and natural space is positive for mental health, and environmental stewardship is good for the environment,” Zeitz said. “It’s such a critical intersection for people that if we are able to cultivate programming that supports both, it leads to a stronger environmental movement that’s really promoting human resilience in the process.”
4. Help students take action to promote sustainability.
Climate change can feel overwhelming, especially considering the political gridlock which often leads to policy inaction. Three in 10 teenagers said they felt helpless when they thought of climate change and its effects, according to the EdWeek survey.
But when students feel a sense of agency, that can lessen their distress. The survey found that about half of teenagers said they want to learn in school what they can do personally to lessen the effects of climate change and to better understand the science behind it.
Educators should give students tools to feel part of the solution in their own community, advocates say. For example, students could take charge of a recycling or compost program at their school, petition school officials to install solar panels on school buildings, or write letters to elected officials to share their support for conservation issues.
After all, when teenagers are able to channel their anxiety into action, it can help them envision a better future, Wray said.
“It’s important to feel the emotions and process them, ... but not stop there,” she said. “Not get stuck in any one dire place—keep moving.”
5. Weave ideas for taking action to help across school subjects.
Climate education and information about the tangible things kids can do in response can cross every subject and discipline, so all students can feel empowered to make a difference, Goddard said.
“You don’t have to be a scientist,” she said. “You can be interested in cooking and learn how to use all the parts of an animal or a plant in your cooking. You can learn how to grow things sustainably. You can be an engineer and focus on how to build in a more sustainable way. There’s so many different avenues. You can be an artist—there is a place for that role in the climate change movement as well.”
After all, Goddard said, not all students are comfortable with the spotlight or the megaphone. “All the Greta Thunbergs are incredibly wonderful and inspiring, but not everyone’s going to be that,” she said, referring to the teenage climate-justice activist.
New Jersey became the first state this year to require that climate change be taught in all schools, across grade levels and subjects. That sort of interdisciplinary approach can help address the real curiosity this generation has for learning more about climate change topics and issues, advocates say.
Coverage of how climate change is affecting students’ learning and well-being is supported in part by a grant from the Education Writers’ Association Reporting Fellowship program, at www.ewa.org/fellowship. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.