Teaching children about sensitive and controversial current affairs: Talking to children in schools about the situation in Ukraine

This blog has been developed from a twitter thread (27/2/2022) relating to supporting children and young people to understand the situation in Ukraine.

Photo by Santiago Sauceda Gonzu00e1lez on Pexels.com

The teaching of sensitive and controversial issues in school is always contentious.  Teachers are tasked with navigating the finely balanced rights of the child to know and understand the world in which they live, the rights of the parent to decide what they should know, and the statutory responsibilities required of them by the state.  From sex and relationships education to creationism ‘v’ evolution, where the responsibility lies for educating children about these important but highly controversial topics is deeply contested.  

In the wake of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, I have had several conversations with parents of children spanning ages of 5 to 15 years in recent days.  In all cases these parents were concerned about how their child’s school had begun talking to the children about the situation in Ukraine. None of these parents wanted to hide the news from their children. Rather, they were concerned with how/whether it might be mediated in more age-appropriate ways that wouldn’t lead to sleepless nights and unmanageable anxiety. 

Over three decades after the end of the Cold War and the retreating threat of nuclear attack, the recent outbreak of war in Europe, with all the associated implications of the current conflict, presents a significant challenge for teachers; most will remember events prior to the fall of the Berlin war as a vague childhood memory or a chapter in their history course.  And herein lies the challenge – how do teachers navigate the obvious need of students to talk about the fast-moving unfolding events whilst wrestling with their own shock, fear, gaps in understanding and pressures of parental and societal expectation about how this should be mediated with children? (Kello, 2016)

I tend more towards the ‘being totally upfront & open’ end of the spectrum in these sorts of conversations with children or, as Kitson and McCully (2005) express it, I’m a bit of a ‘risk-taker’.  I think children can often cope with more than adults give them credit for and, as both a teacher and parent, I am not sure in the longer term of the benefits of sheltering them from the reality of the world.  Indeed, no matter how fast we leap to intervene children will encounter news and images of the war on the television, when passing a newspaper stand in the local shop, or from overhearing playground or adult conversations.  My view is that it is almost always better for adults to be proactive in addressing complex and sensitive topics with young people, creating safe spaces where they can ask difficult questions and get straight answers which draw on legitimate factual information sources and mediate their anxieties.    

However, during my conversations with these parents I reflected on a few considerations that teachers might want to bear in mind as they plan for these inevitable conversations with young people.

Principles for talking to children about sensitive and controversial current affairs

  • We shouldn’t seek to alarm children or heighten their fears, nor to falsely reassure them.  We should acknowledge that this is frightening and that it is legitimate to be anxious about what this might mean for the people of Ukraine, Russia and the surrounding countries, themselves and their families, the future.
  • To ensure we are ‘age appropriate’ we need to answer the questions children are ACTUALLY asking about sensitive & controversial current events, not the ones we think they ought to be asking or the ones we, as adults, want to discuss.
  • We should refrain from hypothesising about potential outcomes. We don’t know what will happen. Everyone is reeling considering the implications of these events as they unfold. We should be upfront that things are uncertain but avoid armchair analysis.
  • History and Politics teachers should be cautious about drawing parallels. That’s not to say they should be avoided entirely but they do need to be well considered and not used as an ‘easy hook’ into studies of different periods.
  • We need to be aware our classes will contain children with lots of knowledge and no knowledge of the unfolding situation, lots of questions and none. Some may also ask questions as a way to ease their anxiety but actually make their anxiety worse. We need to safeguard these children.
  • We have a responsibility to help our young people make sense of what is happening – for some school will be the only place where they have an opportunity to do this – but we do need to think through carefully how we approach it. What words, unthinkingly spoken, might have unintended consequences that cause great anxiety in children? What images might allow children to contextualise and make sense of the situation without exposing them to unnecessarily gratuitous scenes?
  • Avoid asking children open empathy questions such as ‘Imagine you are a refugee, how would you feel?’  Questions like these simultaneously encourage children to feel fearful about things which they can only inadequately imagine, and in doing so feed their anxiety, while also diminishing the experience of those actually caught up in the reality and horror of the situation.  Supporting young people to develop their empathy around these sensitive situations is better achieved by examining real life stories (in an age appropriate way) and exploring the agency of the people involved – for example asking questions about how people are still managing to take some control of their lives, remain resilient in the face of such terror etc.  Additionally, galvanising young people to action (even in small ways) such as through collecting items for donation to a relevant appeal, can have a more meaningful impact upon any empathy objective you may have in this context.      
  • Involve parents and carers in this process.  Think about how schools might support parents in having these conversations at home so that it is a shared responsibility where the delicate balance is more likely to be achieved.  It is especially important to talk to parents/ carers about students who seem particularly anxious. There may be things you don’t know about pupils’ personal situations which means they need even more sensitivity on your part – relatives in the Ukraine, family member in UK armed forces etc. There may be children who have fled warzones themselves in the past or who had family caught up in the recent events in Afghanistan, for example. They may be upset and confused too by the response to this conflict in comparison to other recent wars.
  • Be prepared to revisit the situation with pupils.  The proximity of a conflict within our continent is an extremely frightening reality.  As the conflict evolves so will the questions children bring to you as a trusted adult. 

Teachers are incredible people motivated to prepare children to navigate the world around them. Most will already be taking this seriously and taking time to educate themselves beyond the headlines. We must support children by mediating events responsibly and sensitively.

Further Reading/ Resources:

Helen Snelson has set up this thread of useful places for teachers to get information and materials which might be helpful for preparing for discussions with pupils about the events in the Ukraine. My thanks also go to her for her support in thinking this through.

Euroclio have compiled this padlet of resources which are very helpfully catalogued to support colleagues.

Hugh Richards has created a lesson on Ukraine which he is currently updating daily and has made freely available for teachers.

Ameila Hill, writing in The Guardian, has published an article including advice on supporting children who are anxious about the unfolding events:  ‘A delicate balance’: experts’ tips on dealing with Ukraine anxiety in children

References:

Kello, K. (2016) Sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom: teaching history in a divided society, Teachers and Teaching, 22:1, 35-53, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2015.1023027

Kitson, A. & McCully, A. (2005) ‘You hear about it for real in school.’ Avoiding, containing and risk-taking in the classroom’, Teaching History 120

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