Teaching From Our Research Center

‘Will There Be World War III?’ How Teachers Are Handling Student Fears About Nuclear War

By Madeline Will — April 21, 2022 6 min read
A damaged gas mask lies on the pavement at a Russian position which was overrun by Ukrainian forces, outside Kyiv, Ukraine on March 31, 2022. Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its veiled threats of using nuclear arms have policymakers questioning how the West should respond to a Russian battlefield explosion of a nuclear bomb. The default U.S. policy answer, say some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, is with discipline and restraint.
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In recent years, teachers have had to address a wide range of frightening or upsetting news in class. The latest? The possibility of nuclear war.

The war in Ukraine has triggered mass fear and anxiety in Americans, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association and the Harris Poll in early March. Eighty percent of those surveyed said potential retaliation from Russia, such as cyberattacks or nuclear threats, is a significant source of stress. And 69 percent of adults said they’re worried the invasion of Ukraine is going to lead to nuclear war and fear that we are at the beginning stages of World War III.

That fear and anxiety is trickling down to children, too. Teachers say they’ve heard students of varying ages discussing the possibility of nuclear war. After all, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during an April 18 interview that Russia is committed to avoiding nuclear war, the threat of nuclear attacks has been in the headlines for weeks. Western officials have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could turn to tactical or other limited nuclear weapons.

Yet educators are somewhat divided about how teachers should respond if a student brings up the possibility of nuclear war with Russia, according to a recent nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district leaders, principals, and teachers.

Fifty-five percent of educators said a teacher should start an open discussion about the topic in which students feel empowered to ask related questions. But 22 percent said a teacher should explain the many factors that would have to happen to trigger a nuclear war and say that it was unlikely, but try to avoid an open-ended discussion on the topic.

Seven percent said a teacher should try to redirect the conversation to a different topic. Nobody said a teacher should tell students that a nuclear war would never happen.

“That would be dishonest, I think, as an educator,” said Donna Shrum, a 9th grade social studies teacher at Central High School in Woodstock, Va.

Here are a few ways teachers are handling student concerns about nuclear warfare.

Be available to answer questions

Social studies teachers should encourage students to come to them with questions or concerns, said Anton Schulzki, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“We hopefully have established that really good relationship with our students, where they feel comfortable coming to us,” said Schulzki, who is a social studies teacher at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He added that at this point in the school year, teachers also probably know whether their students are anxious about the news—or mostly just curious.

When Russia first attacked Ukraine, an 8th grader approached her teacher, Joe Harmon, with a question weighing heavy on her mind: “Should we be worried about World War III or nuclear war?”

Harmon, who teaches history and civics at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, Pa., tried to reassure her without dismissing the concerns entirely.

“I’m trying to allay her fears without saying, ‘Heck no, that can’t happen,’” Harmon said. “But [I told her] there’s no need to worry about it.”

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Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
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Around the same time, Jordan Boom, a 5th grade teacher of English-language learners at McMurray Middle School in Nashville, Tenn., overheard her students talking about the war and whether Russia would drop bombs on the United States. After lunch, she took a break from her regular instruction and asked students to share their concerns.

“I was just trying to be a good listener for them,” she said. “It’s hard to say, ‘Everybody put away your thoughts, I’m going to teach you now.’”

Students were scared that the United States was going to war or would be under attack. Boom told them that at the moment, the conflict was only between Russia and Ukraine, and they didn’t have to worry about the United States getting involved. Later, she had the class read a Newsela article about the war and write a response.

In open-ended responses to the EdWeek Research Center survey, several educators also said they would make sure to let parents know that their child was feeling worried or anxious.

Share the facts

It’s important for teachers to be honest, in an age-appropriate way, about what they know—and what they don’t know, Schulzki said.

Of course, it’s a fine line: “I don’t sugarcoat, but I also don’t want to traumatize students,” said Chris Dier, a high school U.S. history teacher in New Orleans. “They should know the severity of what’s happening. ... I’m telling the authentic truth as best as possible, or as best I know, while comforting students.”

Dier said he has tried to comfort his students—who were particularly alarmed by headlines that the Doomsday Clock, which conveys threats to humanity and the planet,is 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been—by reminding them there’s not much that they can do about the situation. Also, teachers said they try to remind their students that this war is happening far away.

Madeline Baker, a 5th grade teacher at McMurray Middle School in Nashville, pulled out a world map in response to her students’ questions and showed them the distance between Ukraine and Tennessee.

“We are very far away in a place that does not show up on their radar,” she told students. “Unless they’re targeting Taylor Swift, we’re OK.”

Schulzki, of NCSS, also recommended that teachers ask students about the sources of what they’re hearing and teach them how to identify reputable sources. Some students get their news on TikTok or other social media, which is rife with misinformation.

Draw historical connections

Teachers said some of their history lessons are resonating a little more these days. For example, Dier said that during his unit on the Cold War, his class discussed instances where society was afraid of nuclear war.

“I used to teach these lessons, and it was tough to somewhat make that relatable to today because students don’t have this fear, but this year was a lot different—students do have that fear, which is not irrational to have,” he said.

Even ancient history can teach us lessons about modern events, said Shrum, the history teacher in Virginia. She had her honors students lead group discussions, in which students read articles and then posed questions to their peers. Students drew connections between Ivan III, the Russian ruler in the late 1400s who extended Moscow’s control over a large area, and Putin, as well as between the siege of Carthage by ancient Rome and the Russia-Ukraine war.

“As we walked around [during the discussion], we kept hearing students say, ‘I’m not as worried anymore because I understand it,’” Shrum said. “From watching the news, they got the impression that Russia would bomb Ukraine one day and the U.S. the next.”

Some teachers avoid the topic

“In this day and age, where it seems social studies teachers are nervous about talking about almost anything that’s off script, there may be some social studies teachers who say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t talk about that,’” Schulzki said.

Some of that might be because this topic doesn’t fit into the scope and sequence of their curriculum, or because they simply don’t have time, Schulzki said. But also, “some teachers might be fearful that they’re treading on thin ice because of [the risk of] parental complaints,” he said.

NCSS and other teacher professional organizations have warned that the spate of legislation seeking to limit how teachers can discuss race, racism, and sexuality will have a chilling effect on all classroom discussions, as teachers may steer clear of avoiding anything that could be considered controversial.

In any event, navigating these discussions “shows the complexity of teaching during these times,” Dier said. “We have a lot on our plates as teachers.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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