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How to Teach Students About Climate Change—Without Giving Them Eco-Anxiety

4 tips for a climate science education that takes students’ mental health into account
By Willa Grifka & Luke Williams — June 26, 2023 4 min read
Photo illustration of a green nature filled silhouette of a person standing in contemplation looking at smoggy urban cityscape.
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Attention educators: Students are thirsting for updated climate science education—and approaching that education with sensitivity is imperative to keeping your students’ mental health afloat.

In March, student activists from across the country co-authored two climate change resolutions that were then introduced in Congress by Reps. Mike Thompson and Barbara Lee, both California Democrats. While unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled House, the resolutions articulated a pressing concern for many young people: increasing youth’s access to climate science education while supporting their well-being through the mental health hardships that climate change may introduce.

As support for climate science education in classrooms swells, it’s time for teachers to understand how to address the emotional implications of teaching children about climate change.

Paradoxically, just talking about climate change has been shown to have detrimental effects on children’s mental health. Swedish psychologist Maria Ojala explains that “learning about global problems can trigger profound feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness,” especially for children who are still learning to regulate negative emotions. These negative emotions can lead to a phenomenon known as eco-anxiety, characterized by a fear of environmental destruction severe enough to cause lost sleep, nightmares, and disengagement from school and social activities.

Teaching children about climate change should be a major priority in spite of its mental burden. As the ones who will suffer directly from society’s collective inaction, young people must engage with global problems. Research has indicated that educating children and early adolescents about global problems—once they have developed the ability to reason abstractly—is not only vital to inspiring interest but is also beneficial for students’ performance in climate literacy, reading comprehension, and engagement with the topic at large.

Having graduated from California K-12 public schools just three and four years ago, respectively, we were both fortunate enough to have learned about climate science in depth. While we were taught why climate change was happening, we both felt that neither our teachers nor the curriculum addressed our (or our classmates’) fears and anxieties. As a result, we were left with a deafening feeling of helplessness.

The responsibility for balancing this essential climate science education with the eco-anxiety that can result will fall on the classroom teachers who interact with kids directly.

Here are simple, evidence-based methods that educators can implement in the classroom to promote positive experiences surrounding climate education:

1. Encourage your students to develop a direct relationship with nature. Research from environmental educators has found that direct contact with nature is a key component in developing care for the environment. Take your students on hikes, visit parks, and encourage them to spend time outside on their own.

2. Don’t exaggerate the facts. In a 2021 survey of young people, 75 percent of respondents reported feeling that the “future is frightening,” and very few reported feeling optimistic. With the world failing to meet climate targets and the Earth on track for a 4.5 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures by the end of this century, fear is understandable. Nevertheless, exaggerating the science to instill worry is irresponsible and counterproductive. Instead, emphasize that, while climate change is real, actionable solutions do exist; our fate is far from settled.

3. Highlight both local and international solutions. Emphasize solutions that communities and countries are currently implementing. This is also a great opportunity to teach students about international cooperation and treaties. If you need a starting point, here are a few examples of international, national, and state policies: 1) the Paris climate accords; 2) President Joe Biden’s historic climate bill; 3) California’s historic climate bill.

4. Encourage students to take collective action. Yale researchers have found that collective action against climate change can reduce eco-anxiety. Encourage kids to focus on what they can do with others, such as joining clubs or connecting with community to create solutions to their climate anxieties. Perhaps even highlight those proposed U.S. House resolutions that were written by young students who came together to take action or the 16 Montana youths who are now suing their state over climate change. Emphasize that being anxious is OK, but debilitating worry isn’t productive.

Incorporating these ideas in the classroom could reframe climate change as a problem to be solved rather than a doomsday prophecy. As a result, the growing body of climate-conscious kids will not only be mentally and emotionally healthier but will be encouraged to create sustainable positive change for the future.

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