Teaching

How to Talk With Students About the Russia-Ukraine War: 5 Tips

By Sarah Schwartz & Kevin Bushweller — February 24, 2022 3 min read
A woman and a girl walk to a shelter during Russian shelling outside Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russia has launched a barrage of air and missile strikes on Ukraine early Thursday and Ukrainian officials said that Russian troops have rolled into the country from the north, east and south.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine this week is resulting in images in the media of buildings exploding in fire, people bloodied and injured from missile attacks, and fearful children and parents getting in cars and buses to flee to safety. It is difficult to watch but hard to ignore. That is the case for children and teenagers as well as adults.

Education Week pulled together 5 tips from our recent coverage of this international crisis to help teachers and principals talk to students thoughtfully and appropriately about what is going on in Ukraine.

1. First and foremost, consider the developmental and age levels of your students

Talking about issues like war looks very different with high school students than it does with elementary school children. The horrifying pictures already emerging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine might be OK to share with high school students because they are seeing similar images on the news. But educators of younger children need to be more careful about how they talk about war and what images they show, even though kids in the digital era likely have easy access to information about the situation. “With younger kids, 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,” advises Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, in a recent interview with Education Week.

2. Encourage students to feel a sense of agency about how they can make a difference

Minke emphasizes that people of any age will feel a greater sense of hopefulness if they feel like they can do something to help others. Of course, that could be very difficult and complicated in this moment regarding the situation in Ukraine, because it is such a fluid, unpredictable environment. But brainstorming with students about how they could help—maybe rallying community members to donate to international aid groups such as the Red Cross—might be a good start.

3. Explain why it is important to pay attention to what is happening in other parts of the world

“The crisis is a great opportunity for teachers to do a few things. One is to explain: Something that’s happening across the world in Europe, why does this matter to some young person in the United States, or to the United States?” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on international relations and foreign policy. The group also publishes curriculum and simulation resources for high school and college educators. “In order to be an informed citizen, one needs to be globally literate. One needs to understand why the world matters, how it works, how foreign policy affects the world.”

4. Pose nuanced, objective questions to high school students about the crisis

Asking nuanced questions and encouraging students to evaluate different sources of information to develop their own answers to those questions can be a path forward, said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer at iCivics, a nonprofit that promotes civics education and provides educational resources for teachers. Haass adds that getting students to this place where they can wrestle with these questions of foreign policy is a process. “Once you absorb [why international affairs matter], either in principle or specifically, you can go on to: What are the options? What are the potential tools? What should be our priorities? What costs should we be willing to pay?”

5. Share stories of what regular people are experiencing

It’s important for students to hear the voices of everyday people, said Jody Sokolower, the co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project at the Middle East Children’s Alliance. Sokolower, a former managing editor at Rethinking Schools, also edited Teaching About the Wars, that organization’s guide to teaching about the Iraq war and U.S. involvement in the Middle East. “Traditionally, history is taught in terms of kings and presidents and military leaders,” she said. “And if you look at history in terms of who are the people and who are the movements, what were the issues that they were confronting and how were they trying to fight for more freedom, it really casts things in a different light.”

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