Below are general guidelines for talking with students who may be upset about recent terrorist attacks.
Don't ignore issues. If students are concerned about what they’ve been seeing and hearing in the news, the issue is present in the classroom, whether you talk about it or not. If you, the adult, provide a supportive environment in which to address challenging and sensitive issues constructively, they can become powerful teachable moments. If you don't, these very same issues can become disruptive and divisive in similarly powerful ways.
Be present and available. When upsetting or frightening things happen, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present and are available and ready to provide support when needed.
Provide structure. At times of uncertainty, it is especially important to structure how information is shared (such as through talking circles, pair shares, microlabs and/or fishbowls) and to re-emphasize community norms. These structures and norms can provide some comfort and reassurance for kids to hold on to when they feel shaken. This is especially true if these structures have been used before and will continue to be used regularly. See engaging your class through groupwork for more information on these formats.
Invite student feelings and thoughts. When students are worried or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. (The same is true for us as adults, of course.) Feeling a sense of connection and support is more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened. Consider providing a space where all students have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the issue in question. You might do this through a "talking circle": pass an object (a talking piece) around the circle. See this introduction to the circle process.
Beware, as students’ share their feelings, that sometimes grief and anger, though normal and healthy responses to acts of terror, can easily get misdirected. Share with students that we need to avoid making generalizations or fuel feelings of hatred and revenge that could promote a backlash against innocent groups of people (eg, Muslims and Arabs).
Listen and paraphrase. Acknowledge students’ feelings and thoughts. It is important, especially in difficult times, for students to know they are being heard without judgment. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging students' feelings and thoughts allows students to process their feelings and possibly move beyond some of their worries so that they can begin to explore the issue and generate questions that might further understanding.
Normalize student feelings and thoughts. Let students know they are not alone in feeling confused, upset or angry. Many people feel this way in times of crisis. It is not at all unusual and talking about it will help kids understand that they are not alone.
Check in with individual students. Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others need to be encouraged. Look for kids who are acting out of the ordinary, because even if they are not reaching out verbally, there may be behavioral telltales that they are struggling.
Encourage students to generate questions. Generate lots of questions, open-ended questions, questions from different perspectives. (For more on how to generate good questions, see Alan Shapiro's Thinking is Questioning.) The world is a complex place and the tools we use to engage it should embrace that complexity, rather than ignore it. It's easy to resort to black-and-white thinking, assuming that things are either good or bad. But this thinking promotes polarization and pits people against each other. Instead, try to promote thinking that recognizes not only shades of gray but the spectacular colors that bring the real world into view, accepting and respecting a multitude of varied thoughts and opinions.
Brainstorming open-ended questions that do not assume answers (especially not "the one right answer"), cultivates critical thinking and encourages students to think creatively, without judgment or fear of giving the wrong answer. A classroom environment that emphasizes good questions rather than right answers prepares students for the complexity of today's world and the wealth of information that is available to them if they know to look for it.
Promote dialogue. Too often young people are only taught to debate issues. And though debating skills are useful to have in today's world, dialogue is perhaps a more valuable skill when it comes to better understanding complex issues. Debate is about competition and convincing your opponent. Dialogue, on the other hand, is about cooperation, understanding your partner and opening up new ways of thinking. Dialogue promotes a widening of horizons and openness to change. (For more on teaching on controversial issues, see our guidelines for Teaching about Controversial or Difficult Issues.)
Memorialize the victims of the attack. Consider a moment of silence for the victims or find other ways that students and staff can memorialize and honor the victims. Coming together in this way can promote solidarity and support among survivors and allies. It can help encourage a sense of social recovery, healing and inclusion when approached thoughtfully and with sensitively, possibly nipping thoughts and feelings of hatred and revenge in the bud.
Look for the helpers. Consider sharing the Fred Rogers quote that has circulated after terrorist attacks:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"
Ask students what they’ve heard about people helping out and any acts of solidarity in the wake of the attacks. How does that make them feel? Is there anything they'd like to do beyond the conversation today that may make help them and others impacted by the attacks feel supported?