I am writing this as Ukraine has been under attack from Russia for the past 4 days. During frighting and disturbing times, it has always seemed so strange to me to that we carry on with life as usual. I felt it as a graduate student on 9/11. I felt it as a teacher during hurricane Katrina and the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a teacher now, and in the past years with the pandemic and racial reckoning happening here in the US.
Now, even more than USUAL, I believe kids deserve compassion and guidance in dealing with how they are feeling. They are not machines that are simply absorbing, processing, and applying information. They are HUMANS that process their world through FEELINGS. How a student is FEELING impacts their learning more than anything else.
Stress literally shuts down the brain's frontal lobes. A stressed/anxious/sad student is a student learning a small fraction of what they could be learning in an emotional state that is conductive to learning.
When I was a student and a classroom teacher, I didn't often have or make opportunities to talk about the upsetting things going on in the world. As a teacher, I felt tremendous pressure to 'get through the curriculum' - and I'm not sure what I would have TOLD my students anyway. But. I don't think that is the point: to tell them 'how to handle' X or Y.
What kids need is to be HEARD. And have their feelings validated, whatever they might be.
So while I HAVE always tried really hard to listen to students, and to very much appreciate their thoughts and feelings, and we had some classroom discussions about what was upsetting to them...I sure didn't give my students as much time as they needed. And even while I was listening to them, my attention was no doubt somewhat divided. I was ALWAYS keenly aware, 5 minutes spent 'off topic' meant 5 minutes lost on a lesson that we would be rushing through under the best of circumstances.
So, even though, even at that time, I completely felt the way the students did (How is life just going on as normal?? Why aren't we talking about this??), I didn't give them the time and the true attention to their feelings that the situation called for. Why not?! Well, I already mentioned the time crunch, but maybe even more than that are the habits of mind that being a public school teacher tends to generate. Someday I will have to write more about how STRANGE it was to be in the public school system: to have SO much focus and discussion around topics meaningless to students (things like: specific test scores, the next big thing in education, meeting standards). Not spending time on what ACTUALLY matters to kids was a VERY familiar feeling.
Well, that was a long aside to tell you, I don't think IGNORING world events - scary or otherwise - is a good way to go in teaching. So what could we do instead?
(Note: all of this of course depends COMPLETELY on the child's age AND what you as their parent think is best for them! Kids are all different! There is not one right answer here!)
Short Term (NEW SCARY CRISIS):
Option 1: Stop the Presses! Does continuing with any school make sense today? Could you spend the morning talking through things if that is what your child needs?
Option 2: Carry On. Does continuing with school completely as usually mean the least amount of stress for your child? Does it take their mind off of their worry?
I find a combination of 1 and 2 - in that order!!!! - works really well. Listen and comfort first. Explain why just STOPPING school/work/life isn't probably a great option. Some things to keep in mind:
- 24/7 news is alarmist because it SELLS. Period. Talk about not falling for that trap.
- Be honest with how you are feeling. It is perfectly OK (and human) to be scared, angry, sad, and not to know what to do. It is OK to be open about how you are feeling - of course exactly how you do that will look different for different kids and different ages.
- Answer their questions as best you can.
- Explain that you will KEEP talking about whatever this scary thing is, read about, and come back to it. More knowledge almost ALWAYS has a calming effect. It is so easy to imagine big scary scenarios - we all do it! But. Learn more about what is really happening than what you might IMAGINE to be happening. This does NOT mean watching the news 24/7! Instead, read and learn about the region or phenomenon in general. In the current situation that means my son and I have been learning about NATO, the EU, 20th and 21st century European and Asian history. I promise checking the news once a day is enough!
- You could say things like: 'Keeping up with education is important because X, Y, Z.' or 'What we survive makes us stronger.' or that 'life IS a risk and so there will ALWAYS be scary things happening somewhere.' I personally find NONE of those very helpful at all. But use what works for you - different things will resonate with different parents and kids.
- It is easy to feel helpless in these situations. If there IS action you and your family can take: donations, raising awareness, raising money, other direct action - all of those can help you and your child(ren) to deal with what is going on. ACTION is an incredible antidote to depression, fear, and feeling helpless.
- My go-to in these situations (when I can remember it, sometimes it takes a bit!) is that taking care of YOURSELF first is the best way to help others. Put your own oxygen mask on first! So for both parent/teacher and child/student: make your health a priority. That includes mental, physical, spiritual, social, and intellectual health. We DO have to keep doing all of things that are good for us in the short term and the long term. And education IS one of those things. When we are ok, we can best help others. That is the angle that helps me personally to feel better and feels honest when I talk to my son or other students. Thinking about things this way also lets us keep attention on helping others how we can at this time.
Long-term (ON-GOING HORRIBLE SITUATION):
OK. When I outlined this blog post I thought maybe I had some things that I could say about how to deal with how the world is... How do we stay sane when there ARE terrible things happening everywhere, everyday? I have always struggled with how to handle this personally...so how can we help kids figure it out???
Well, the best I have been able to do is be honest with kids, and be there with them and for them.
I also do as Mr. Rogers always did: point out the 'helpers.' Terrible and scary things can bring out such good in people. So helping kids focus on the good others are doing and what we can do to help is something I can do.
Staying healthy applies just as much if not more in long-term stressful situations. So pay attention to ALL of those areas of health: mental, physical, spiritual, social, and intellectual.
And guess what? In my experience, if you really listen to kids, you might learn something for YOURSELF about 'how to handle' whatever yucky stuff is going on right now. Kids are smarter than we often give them credit for.
I would love to hear from you on this topic. How are things going for you and your child(ren) right now? What have you found that helps? That doesn't help? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org