Middle and high school students are keenly aware of what’s happening in the world, and news stories about disturbing events can have a profound effect on them. It’s important that we as educators recognize that student reactions and feelings of worry, distress, or anger in times like this will likely be present in our classrooms, whether or not we decide to discuss them.
If we provide brave and supportive classroom spaces where students can address their thoughts and feelings constructively, we can foster powerful healing and teaching moments. If we don’t, these very same thoughts and feelings can become disruptive and divisive, with the potential to cause harm in similarly powerful ways.
Here are some steps we can take to address upsetting events in ways that support our students, in our classrooms and beyond.
Be aware: As educators, we need to be conscious of our social identities and how they shape the way we experience the world. Our sense of events and reactions may be different from that of our students. We need to recognize the lenses through which we see the world, and our biases, which we need to challenge again and again.
Recognize who your students are: Given differences in family background, history, culture, and life experience, students might respond differently to situations. Be mindful of how events can trigger strong thoughts, feelings, and reactions, especially for students who’ve been exposed to violence before.
Provide structure: During challenging times, it’s especially important to have done some class community building ahead of time and to provide consistency and structure. Having relationships to fall back on and revisiting class norms and structures (like talking circles, pair shares, microlabs, and/or affinity spaces) can provide reassurance for kids when they’re feeling unsettled.
Be present and available: When troubling things happen in the world, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present, available, and ready to provide support.
Guide the conversation with sensitivity
Invite students to share feelings, thoughts, and reactions: When we feel worried or upset, it’s helpful to know that we’re not alone. Experiencing a sense of connection and support is often more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened, especially at first. Let students know that their voices are welcome, but they can always choose not to share.
Beware that grief and anger can get misdirected: While these emotions are normal and healthy responses to upsetting events, at times they can be misdirected. We need to nip in the bud generalizations that can fuel feelings of hatred and revenge. Acknowledge and name the various feelings present in the room without judgment, but make sure to challenge bias and stereotyping.
Listen and paraphrase: In difficult times, students need to know they’re being heard without judgment. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging what students say allows them to process their thoughts and feelings and possibly move to explore issues in deeper ways.
Normalize student feelings: Let students know that feelings of worry, fear, anger, and confusion are normal human responses to upsetting situations. Tears are, too. Too often kids are told by caring adults not to express their emotions, which prevents them from working things through and can cause problems down the line.
Recognize behavior as communication: Look for kids who act out of the ordinary. Even students who don’t speak up may have telltale behaviors that indicate they need help.
Dig deeper and take action
Once the initial shock of events has passed and we’ve processed our reactions, we can begin to explore underlying issues and consider taking action.
Provide accurate information: Don’t let misinformation, bias, and stereotypes go unchallenged. Introduce diverse voices that can help explain the broader situation and its causes.
Generate questions: Encourage students to ask questions. 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’s available to them if they know to look for it.
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 systemic forces that underlie upsetting events (such as institutional racism, sexism, historical inequities, and/or current lack of access to resources).
Mourn together: Find ways for students to honor those who have been lost or harmed. Consider a moment of silence for those who died; create a memorial; and/or share hopes, wishes, and prayers for survivors and loved ones. Coming together in this way can promote solidarity, support, social recovery, and healing.
Highlight acts of solidarity: Ask students what they’ve heard about 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 in class that may help them and others feel supported?
Take loving action: Building students’ awareness of social justice, combined with social action such as community organizing, protests, campaigns, or educational initiatives, can contribute to students’ sense of hopefulness, optimism, agency, and overall well-being in the face of violence and destruction. Researchers have found that young people’s well-being is a function of the control and power they have in their schools and communities.
Your students may never forget how, during a time of trauma and turmoil, they found comfort in each other’s company, felt connection, and took loving action together. Responding courageously in upsetting moments can help us, our students, and our communities heal and grow in powerful ways.