It’s been a tumultuous few months, weather-wise: extreme heat, roaring wildfires and lingering smoke, and numerous severe storms. The events have continued into the start of the school year, and might prompt questions—and concerns—among students.
That’s why environmental and social-emotional advocates say that educators should be prepared to address a growing phenomenon known as climate anxiety. The term encompasses all the difficult emotions—anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, anger, helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt—that people can experience when confronting climate change, which is linked to more extreme weather events.
A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted last fall, found that 37 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects, and more than a third feel afraid. Many also said they feel helpless and overwhelmed.
And a new study by the organization Earth Rangers, which works with children to transform their concerns about the environment into action, found that younger children are also experiencing some of these emotions. The group surveyed 1,000 6- to 11-year-olds in the United States and found that more than 80 percent of respondents indicated experiencing some degree of climate anxiety, including feeling worried about animal extinction, climate change, and the future of the planet.
Education Week spoke to Earth Rangers President Tovah Barocas about the research and how teachers can respond to signs of climate anxiety among their students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did your research reveal about climate anxiety among children?
We put kids into different groups in order to define how they were engaging with the environment: empowered, which means that they’re taking strong environmental action; disengaged, which meant that they were concerned about the environment, but not necessarily taking action; and then passive, which meant not concerned and also not taking action.
One of the original conclusions to our research in 2020 [which surveyed students in Canada] was that some form of eco-anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We only tend to do something about issues that we’re concerned about. It’s not inherently wrong or bad to have concerns about the environment—it’s how do you translate that concern into positive and productive action.
When we looked at the results in the U.S. from this latest round, what we found was that in general, about 66 percent of the kids we surveyed would fall into that empowered group—taking action. About 22 percent fell into the disengaged group, and then about 12 percent into the passive group.
What were some of the differences across regions in the United States?
The differences aren’t huge: In the Northeast, 71 percent are in the empowered group versus 66 percent across the country. But what’s interesting is the Northeast was the only region where the percentage of kids in each group was exactly the same as the percentage of parents in each group. In every other region, kids index higher [on empowerment] than parents, across the board.
While the research didn’t get into causation—we don’t know exactly why kids in the Northeast are more concerned and more likely to take action—there does seem to be a correlation between what their families are feeling more broadly and how [the children are] feeling.
When you look at the South, for example, 58 percent of parents fall into that empowered group, and 67 percent of kids fall into the empowered group. The kids are significantly over-indexing the parents.
How do you think the recent severe natural disasters and extreme heat have affected children’s eco-anxiety?
This survey was conducted very early this year, so it wouldn’t account for that. But what we’ve seen just through our members and discussions that we’ve had, and even some of the disasters, that there can be two main reactions.
One is to feel like, OK, we really need to do something about this. We’re seeing the impacts right now, and it’s more important than ever to make this a priority for our family, for our community, et cetera.
The other reaction can be to disengage because it feels hopeless or like nothing you can do as an individual would really have an impact. One of the really interesting things in the general eco-anxiety field of study is getting even more specific—there’s eco-fatalism or eco-paralysis. Eco-paralysis always resonates with me because I feel like it is a very natural reaction, which is to feel like you are operating within a system that doesn’t allow for you to make the right decisions. So why would you even try?
An example of that would be: Your grandparents live in a different part of the country, so you need to travel to see them, but you know that air travel is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Are your options to not go see your grandparents? It puts people in a very difficult position.
I imagine that can be especially difficult for children, who often don’t have any control over decisions like that.
Exactly. The types of activities that we really encourage for kids are ones that are meaningful, but are things that they have control over or things that take place in their household where they can see the impact of their actions. [That gives] them a sense of taking control or making a difference, and allows them to become a bit more of a leader or teach their parents something. Things related to more sustainable shopping habits or meatless Mondays. [These activities help give kids a] hopeful outlook.
How should teachers handle these concerns in class?
I think it needs to be a big focus in the education sector at this moment. We’ve seen in surveys that we’ve done with educators that a fear of mental health challenges or emotional reactions has become a significant barrier to teaching about climate and the environment in schools, especially in places where it’s not integrated into the curriculum. It really is kind of the teacher’s decision as to how they might integrate that into their classroom, and if they feel that they haven’t been given the training or the tools that they need to address it in a productive way, why would you? It would be a really easy thing to just decide, “I’m not going to even go there,” which is not the right thing.
We advise teachers to, No. 1, check in with their own eco-anxiety. Of course you have to think about your students, but you also have to think about yourself. Have you even taken the time to think about how you’re feeling?
No. 2 is to engage in discussions—bring it up, but also be prepared with things that are locally relevant. So yes, a hurricane or flooding or wildfire is occurring, but here are local organizations that are also doing proactive things. Be prepared with some kind of a positive counter discussion to the greater concern so that it doesn’t kind of devolve into a sense of hopelessness.
And then have some kind of a class activity that the class can do together to address it. Having an action project that comes out of that discussion can really help.
We’re exploring how we feel about this, we’re learning more about how it’s relevant to our community, and now we’re going to do something about it—all of those things can really help.
What are some examples of class projects that have been helpful for children?
It depends on what the specific issue is. In certain areas you learn about pollination in grade 3, so if you’re learning about pollination and pollinator declines, creating some kind of a pollinator garden or a monarch butterfly garden is something that really helps.
When it comes to waste, ... a litter-less lunch program at the school is something that’s very popular. That’s basically where your lunch shouldn’t have anything that needs to be thrown away. So instead of bringing those single-use packages of Goldfish, you would bring crackers in a Tupperware.
Another project which I really liked was installing rain barrels when you live in a place that might be prone to drought or to fresh water resource issues.
What should educators look out for in order to best support students?
Eco-anxiety is not pathological, it’s not an official diagnosable disorder. It falls into that general anxiety category, so it’s going to manifest [differently] in different students. One of the things that educators can do that is very prudent and important is think about the fact that kids coming from different backgrounds, different life experiences, different cultures are going to experience eco-anxiety in very different ways. If they’ve come from a part of the world that is particularly at risk to climate change, that’s going to impact how they feel about these things.
Other mental health challenges can exacerbate it. Counselors and teachers being prepared for that is very important.
I also think that there’s a really fine balance—and I don’t know that we have, as a society, found the balance yet—between acknowledging what’s going on and trying to encourage kids, just like the rest of us, to take positive action, but not putting it on them. “It is your responsibility to save the planet"—that is unfair. Finding a way for them to feel like they are part of the solution, part of the conversation, but not where it’s all on them is a very important balance to strike.
As we continue to see the real-time impacts of climate, this is an important area of study. It’s something that schools should think about being prepared for and spending time on. This intersection of climate and mental health is just an area that I think is critically important and will continue to grow.
Making sure that we’re equipping teachers, counselors, principals, with the tools that they need and with the background that they need to address these things appropriately is worth investing in.