In many classrooms, teachers have always taken time to help kids process the events going on in the world, dissecting the big stories that students might see in the news or hear their parents talking about. But it’s been an especially steep task for teachers to take on these past few years.
Teachers have fielded students’ questions and heard their fears about the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve talked to their classes about the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against racism and police brutality. When thousands of people stormed the Capitol in January of last year, teachers helped students understand the facts and work through their feelings.
Now, some teachers have found themselves once again answering questions about an issue making headlines: the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two separatist territories in Ukraine. The United States and other countries have imposed sanctions against Russia, in an effort to deter Putin from moving troops further into Ukraine and escalating to war. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that the world is “facing a moment of peril” over the crisis.
The situation may seem far-removed to many students in the United States. But in some classrooms over the past few weeks, teachers have been fielding questions about why the conflict started and what will happen.
Often, students aren’t just curious about these events—they may also be afraid, anxious, or even have feelings of hopelessness. Teachers can play a critical role in supporting students as they process these emotions, said Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.
“As an adult, you can help them. You can acknowledge their feelings, you can normalize what they’re feeling,” she said.
Education Week spoke with Minke about how teachers can support students emotionally when discussing scary or troubling news—and what teachers can do to help students stay hopeful.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How can teachers know when to bring up something in class that’s happening in the news?
We’re in very interesting times at the moment, with teachers feeling a lot of external pressure about what they can and cannot talk to kids about. We see a lot in the news from school board meetings I think that teachers are feeling a lot of pressure around that.
But in general, teachers know a lot about students’ developmental levels and what they’re prepared to think about and talk about and what they’re not. As a teacher, you want to think about who your kids are, first of all. For example, in the current situation, we’re not seeing U.S. troops being deployed, but that could happen. And if you’re working in a school, or in a system, where there’s a large percentage of military-connected families, you’re going to want to be a little bit more careful and sensitive to the kinds of stressors that those kids, in particular, might be experiencing.
With individual kids, you’re always looking for changes in behavior: a student who typically presents as sunny and happy and enthusiastic suddenly becomes more withdrawn. Kids come into school suddenly very tired or sleepy, unable to concentrate. Those kinds of changes in behavior would be important to look for.
And how do you start that conversation with an individual student if you are seeing those kinds of changes in behavior?
You want to be pretty forthright and just say, “Here’s what I have noticed about you over the last couple of days. I’m wondering if everything is OK, or if there’s something you would like to talk about.” You try not to make assumptions. As an adult, whether you’re a teacher or a school psychologist or a parent, you want to give the kid space to talk with you, and to let them know that you are interested in what they have to say.
Often, social studies teachers bring up current events in class and try to teach some history or context. Should this be woven into instruction? Or should discussing these events be more like emotional processing, which should be handled by others—like a student’s school counselor?
I think it depends on the developmental levels that we’re talking about. When you’re talking about high school kids, they’re hearing things, they’re seeing things on the news. Younger kids as well, but certainly in a high school setting, current events are really important to connect to what they’re studying. Those connections can actually deepen the students’ understanding of why certain things are happening and why it matters.
With younger kids, again, you usually want to take your cues from the kids themselves—as far as how much they are seeing and hearing, whether they understand the things that they’re seeing and hearing, and then offering them some ideas and possibilities for how to manage or cope with their emotions.
How can classroom teachers partner with school psychologists to do some of this work?
Teachers are the absolute frontline of recognizing when a student is struggling—whether they’re struggling academically, or they’re struggling emotionally and behaviorally. When they do notice changes in behavior or unusual behaviors for a particular child, talking with the school psychologist [can provide] some feedback on what they’re seeing. And then developing a plan for whether or not that child needs additional attention is really important.
From your experience working with school psychologists, what are the current issues that students are most worried about, or that instill feelings of hopelessness?
Kids are very perceptive. They’re paying attention to what’s going on around them. Every child has experienced some disruption to their pre-COVID lives, and that’s certainly having an impact. Kids are also resilient. But that doesn’t mean that they may not need some assistance in making sense of the things that they’re experiencing.
Usually, you have a sense of hopefulness if you feel like you’re able to impact something. With younger kids, it may be a simple thing of, we’re going to make cards and send them to people [with COVID] who aren’t feeling well. That may be one thing that you can do that helps with coping. With older kids, they may be volunteering in the community or other ways of supporting their community as a way of taking action. Not simply letting things happen to them, but feeling like they have some agency and some mastery over the things that are happening to them.
You talked about agency. Are there other ways that teachers can help cultivate hope about the future?
We all have to think about how we talk to kids and how we manage our own emotions. Kids are always watching, as we know. What they need to see from the adults in their lives is positive coping strategies for themselves.
It’s not about pretending like nothing is wrong or pretending like this hasn’t been an extraordinarily difficult couple of years. But it is about being careful about what you say in front of children, so that you’re presenting to them your “coping self,” rather than your own feelings of despair. That should be worked out with other adults, not really worked out in front of children, because, again, reassurance and reaffirming students’ sense of safety is the baseline of helping kids cope. They need to know that the adults in their lives are managing things, that they’re safe, that, yes, things are difficult, but we can do hard things.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Help Students Cultivate Hope When Worrisome News Is Stressing Them Out