Teaching Elementary Students in Times of Crisis

Here are some basic guidelines for opening up discussion on difficult issues with your elementary and middle school students. 

When major crises happen in our society, from a violent event to an economic collapse, our young ones generally know something is up - even if the situation hasn't been discussed with them directly. Though they may be too young to grasp the details, elementary and middle school students sense what is happening and their concerns may show up in their behavior or mood.

What young people need most in situations like these is to talk. Through class meetings you can provide a safe environment where students can share feelings and thoughts, clarify information, and receive support. If you have spent time building community with your class and establishing supportive group norms, much of the groundwork for dealing with sensitive issues such as these is already in place. In addition you may want to consider the following tips, pointers and thoughts about how to deal with crises or other sensitive information in your classroom:

Don't ignore issues.
They are present whether you talk about them or not and are likely to come out in one way or another. 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.
During any crisis, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present and are available and ready to provide support when needed.

Invite student feelings and thoughts. 
When students are worried or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. Feeling a sense of connection and support is more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened. Consider providing a regular time when all students have the opportunity to take turns sharing their thoughts and feelings about the issue in question. Try to make these times different from regular class. This may mean using a poem, quote or some quiet reflection time to open and close the gathering. You will also need a good opening question for each gathering and supportive group norms—for instance, speaking for oneself, confidentiality and no put downs.  You may want to encourage students to use their time wisely when it is their turn to speak. These gatherings are useful in times of stress, but can be introduced to encourage sharing throughout the year, allowing students to build the kind of community and trust that will allow them to deal more constructively with difficult or stressful situations, when they arise. For more on face-to-face circle gatherings, see this introduction

Listen and paraphrase.
Acknowledge student 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 students understand that they are not alone.

Check in with students.
Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others need to be encouraged. Look for students 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.

Provide structure.
At times of uncertainty and crisis, it is especially important to structure how information is shared (whether through pair shares, triads, microlabs and/or fishbowls) and to re-emphasize community norms. These structures and norms can provide some comfort and reassurance for students to hold on to when their community is shaken. This is especially true if these structures have been used before and will continue to be used regularly.

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 on Controversial Issues.)