In today’s 24/7 breaking-news world, students are exposed to more troubling, tragic, and controversial events than ever before, often starting at a very young age.
As news outlets continue to compete for eyeballs and clicks, the headlines keep coming. On our phones, tablets, computers, and through the more traditional media of newspapers, magazines, radio and tv, the stories are everywhere, no matter how much we might want to shield our kids – and ourselves at times.
In response to disturbing news stories and events, it is important for us as educators to recognize that student feelings of worry, upset, or anger will likely be present in our classrooms, whether we decide to discuss them or not. If we, as adults, provide a brave and supportive classroom space in which to address thoughts and feelings that arise constructively, they can become powerful healing and teaching moments. If we don't, these very same issues can become disruptive and divisive, causing harm in similarly powerful ways.
Here are steps we can take to address upsetting events in ways that support our students.
1. Preparing for the Discussion
- Do Our Homework. We educators need to be aware of our own social identities and how they shape the ways we experience the world. Our sense of events and our reactions may be different from that of our students. We need to recognize our biases and work on challenging them, again and again.
- Consider Our Own Emotional Response. Students will look to us and watch the way we handle ourselves and respond to upsetting news events. We set the tone in our classroom, and in doing so we can reassure students. This of course looks different at different grade levels.
- Recognize Who’s in the Room. Given differences in family background, history, culture, and life experience, students might respond differently to situations in the news. Be mindful of how stories can activate strong thoughts, feelings, and reactions, especially for students who’ve been exposed to violence before. Remind students that your classroom is an inclusive space, open to all voices, but that students can decide for themselves whether they want to talk or not.
- Provide Differentiated Support. Consider convening affinity spaces where students (and staff) can process feelings and thoughts in differentiated ways. This can promote awareness and sensitivity about how issues are experienced and dealt with before bringing diverse groups back together again.
- Provide Structure. During challenging times, it is especially important to have done some class community-building ahead of time. Revisiting class norms and structures (like talking circles, pair shares, and/or microlabs) can provide reassurance for kids when they’re shaken and the world around them feels unsettled. Basic guidelines and structure are essential when opening up any difficult group conversations that come with strong feelings.
- Be Present and Available. When troubling and upsetting things happen in the world, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present, available, and ready to provide support.
2. Guiding the Conversation
- Invite Students’ Feelings, Thoughts, and Reactions. 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. Experiencing a sense of connection and support is often more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened, especially at first. Providing a space where all students have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings can help build those connections and support.
- Normalize Student Feelings. Let students know that feelings of worry, upset, fear, anger, and confusion are normal human responses to upsetting situations and violence. Tears are too. Too often kids are told by caring adults not to express their emotions. When we do this, instead of providing a space to work through and process emotions, students might just bottle up those emotions, which can cause problems down the line.
- Beware that sometimes grief and anger, though normal and healthy responses to violence, injustice, and loss, can get misdirected. We need to nip in the bud generalizations that can fuel feelings of hatred and revenge, possibly promoting a backlash against innocent people. Acknowledge and name the various feelings present in the room without judgment, but make sure to push back on bias and stereotyping.
- Listen and Paraphrase. It is important, especially in difficult times, for students to know they are being heard without judgment. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging what students say allows them to process their thoughts and feelings and possibly move beyond some of their worries so that they can begin to explore issues in deeper ways. Of course, while we want to welcome students’ thoughts and feelings, we also need to stand up to prejudice, hate, and bigotry.
- Check in with Individual Students. Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others may not. 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 need help.
3. Going Deeper – and Taking Action
Once the initial shock of events has passed and students have had a chance to share their thoughts and feelings, we can begin to explore the issues underlying the upsetting event, if that is appropriate.
- Provide Accurate Information About What Happened. Don’t let lies, misinformation, and stereotypes go unchallenged. Recognize that news stories are often sensationalistic and aim to stir up strong feelings. They rarely shine a light on the root causes that can help explain why we find ourselves at this crossroads, yet again. Introduce stories and voices that help to shed light on the broader situation and its cause. Admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. You can always turn unresolved questions into a research project or provide appropriate materials for students to explore later on.
- Generate Questions. Encourage students to generate lots of open-ended questions, critical questions from different perspectives, and questions grounded in moral reasoning. The world is a complex place and the tools we use to engage it should reflect that complexity. Brainstorm questions that do not assume “right” answers, that cultivate critical thinking. Encourage 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 the world and the wealth of information that is available to them if they know to look for it.
- Promote Further Dialogue. Too often young people are only taught to debate issues. And though debating skills are useful, dialogue is perhaps a more valuable skill when it comes to better understanding complex issues. While debate is about competition and convincing others, dialogue is about understanding others and opening up new ways of thinking. It promotes growth.
- Zoom Out. Events don’t happen in isolation. Recognize broader societal patterns. Touch on the historical and institutional power dynamics that have brought us to this place in time. Shine a light on larger systemic forces that underlie events in the news (such as institutional racism, sexism, historical inequities, and/or current lack of access to resources).
- Consider Those Who Have Been Harmed. Look for ways for students to honor those who have been lost or harmed because of the event. This might be a moment of silence for those who have died, or a sharing of hopes and wishes for the survivors. Coming together in this way can promote solidarity and support among survivors and allies. This can help encourage a sense of social recovery, healing, and inclusion when approached thoughtfully and with sensitivity.
Look for the Helpers. Consider sharing the following Fred Rogers quote:
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 event. How does that make them feel? Is there anything they'd like to do beyond the conversation today that may help them and others feel supported?
- Take Loving Action. Building students’ awareness of social justice, combined with social action such as protests, community organizing, support campaigns, or education efforts can contribute to students’ sense of hopefulness, optimism, agency, and overall well-being in the face of violence and destruction. Researchers have found that well-being is a function of the control and power young people have in their schools and communities.
Your students may never forget how, during a time of trauma and turmoil, they shared tender emotions, found comfort in each other’s company, and took loving action together. Responding courageously and kindly in upsetting moments has extra power to help us and our students to heal.