Responding to Young People’s Questions and Fears

By Sarah: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

“There’s just so much news at the moment, my head is going to explode!” – a recent comment from a year 6 girl I was working with, and she’s not alone. Whether it’s the Grenfell fire, Brexit, Donald Trump, Syria or the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, national and international events are impacting on the lives of children and young people in schools up and down the country. Childline has reported a 35% increase in anxiety counselling sessions amongst young people. Research indicates the reasons for the sharp rise are down to a combination of personal and political issues, with some young people talking to counsellors about problems in their day-to-day life while others cite disturbing events seen in the media and social media as being the source of their worries.

“Things like the EU referendum and the US election make me worry about my future and how things are going to change. I feel really sorry for the refugees because it isn’t their fault that their country is at war.” -Teenage girl who contacted Childline

As teachers, it can be hard to know how to support young people to navigate their way through these issues and respond to their questions, concerns and fears. There can be a temptation not to mention anything and to shut down conversations for fear of opening up a can of worms. However, young people need space to interrogate their thoughts and feelings. They need reassurance and facts, and they need to learn the skills of critical thinking, listening to different viewpoints and being prepared to change their opinions on an issue, in order to prepare them to become citizens in a globalised world.

As the Crick report stated in 1998:
“Education should not attempt to shelter our nation’s children from even the harsher controversies of adult life, but should prepare them to deal with such controversies knowledgeably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally… Teachers should adopt strategies that teach pupils how to recognise bias, how to evaluate evidence put before them and how to look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints… above all to give good reasons… and to expect good reasons to be given by others.”

Below are ten key steps to creating an open environment to discuss sensitive issues and respond to young people’s questions and fears, helping young people to feel safe and included, whilst encouraging them to become critical thinkers and active citizens.

1. Be proactive, not reactive

Don’t wait for issues to be brought up by the young people. Without prompting, pupils may never mention that they have been distressed by a news story or seen a graphic image online. Alternatively, if things are brought up, this might happen at inopportune moments with teachers who are not prepared or equipped to discuss them. Create opportunities in assemblies, form groups, citizenship and PSHE to talk about sensitive and controversial issues.
The Red Cross provides a free e-mail service called Newsthink, which provides ideas on how to help young people explore current affairs from a humanitarian perspective, and can provide starting points when an incident occurs.
Working in partnership with local community and religious groups can bolster work in this area, bringing in additional viewpoints and expertise, and highlighting issues that the pupils are facing, which may not have been considered by the school leaders and teachers.

External facilitators can bring a positive dimension, allowing pupils to ask questions that they might feel uncomfortable asking of their teacher and allowing them to learn from a wider variety of people. However, it is important that this input enhances, rather than replaces teacher led work. It will be more effective if it is planned with the teacher who provides the context and follow-up. Additionally, all visitors need to work within the school’s values framework.

2. Start from where the young people are

Talk to the young people and ask what they have heard, give them the opportunity to bring things forward. This can happen in a conversation, or you may wish to provide anonymous opportunities for young people to raise questions and concerns. There are many different ways in which to do this. For example: utilising online questionnaires, providing a box into which young people can post questions, or giving each child a post-it note upon which they can anonymously write their questions.
Doing this allows you to pitch the work at the right level, avoiding over-complicated explanations, which could increase worry and confusion, or leaving out important issues because it is thought that young people aren’t aware of them.

3. Create a safe space where discussions can take place openly

Young people will not open up about their opinions and fears if they worry that they are going to be judged, laughed at or told off. It is important to create a supportive environment where young people are not worried about getting things wrong and are encouraged to work together to help each other’s understanding. It is also important that discussions are not dominated by one or two students. Therefore, it is vital to create a safe space within which all pupils feel respected and able to take part. This can be done through the collaborative creation of ground rules. Some suggested rules are included below:
• Be open and honest
• Respect the feelings of others
• Challenge opinions and disagree respectfully
• Direct challenges to the front of the room, not at each other
• Depersonalise comments
• No-one has to speak if they don’t want to

Some controversial issues may be better approached by discussing what pupils have heard others say, rather than by asking pupils for their personal opinions on an issue. This can allow them to bring points forward that they might be reluctant to do otherwise for fear of reprisal.

4. Consider your own perspective

None of us comes to the classroom from a culturally neutral standpoint and none of us lives in a bubble. We are all influenced by a huge variety of sources, including the media, our neighbourhood, religion, family and friends. Unfortunately, this can mean that we are carrying stereotypes, prejudice and misinformation. Before conducting education on an issue it is important to consider our own biases and knowledge base on the issue. How do I know what I know? What sources have I used? What value judgements am I bringing to the discussion? The teacher does not have to stay completely neutral in the discussion, in fact it may be inappropriate to do so. For example, it is completely fine for teachers to assert the values of human rights and equality. In addition, a teacher does not need to know absolutely everything about an issue before discussing it in the classroom. Admitting you don’t know the answer to a question and researching it with the young people can help to demonstrate that no-one’s knowledge is absolute and teaches young people the value of research and how to research for information in a safe and effective way.

5. Adopt a participatory approach

Supporting pupils to explore sensitive issues requires a participatory approach, with shared control between teacher and pupils, where pupils and teacher listen to each other and share ideas. Circle time can provide a great medium for these discussions to take place, providing everyone with an equal footing, removing barriers and allowing everyone to see each other clearly. Enquiry based learning, such as Philosophy for Children can provide a useful framework; helping young people to listen to the views of others and accept that there can be more than one viewpoint on an issue, that other people’s point of view can also have value and that there is not always a right answer.

6. Empathise with how the young people are feeling

Empathising with how someone is feeling is not the same as agreeing with them or condoning their point of view. Even if a young person’s anger or fear is expressed through misinformation or stereotypes, listen to them and let them know that you understand why they might be feeling this way and try to address their underlying issues. Just dismissing their concerns or giving intellectual arguments as to why they are wrong, instead of understanding why they may feel concerned, has the potential to create bitterness, a feeling that they have not been listened to and to reinforce their prejudice and fear.
Young people need the opportunity to explore their emotions and learn coping mechanisms to cope with traumatic events. Avoid exacerbating fears and upset by using graphic images or images of people in distress. Animations can be used to illustrate points if a visual representation is required.

7. Encourage critical thinking

We cannot always be at our pupils’ sides to help them to navigate the world and recognise misinformation, bias, hyperbole and stereotypes. Use reasoning and enquiry questions to get the young people to question what their opinions are based upon, help them to explore the difference between neutral and emotive language, fact and opinion. Equipping young people with the skills to look for evidence and separate facts from opinion and the knowledge and skills to learn independently, are key to their ability to navigate the world.

8. Put fear into context

Horrific incidents, together with the rolling news coverage and responses of friends and family, can create an overwhelming sense of panic in young people. Children and young people worry about similar things happening to them and their families. Whilst not diminishing the dreadfulness of incidents, it is important to try to give young people a sense of perspective, for example, the reason things are in the news is because they are unusual events; they are unlikely to happen to you or someone that you know.
Now is the safest time ever to be alive, there is less hunger, illiteracy and violence in the world than in any time in history. However, 24 hour news means that we see images of disasters and violence as they happen, and that can increase our fear and anxiety that things are getting worse.
Over the last 10 years there have been 1.4 deaths per year in the UK due to terrorism, which means you’re 13 times more likely to be killed by dogs, 71 times more likely to be killed by hot water or 1271 times more likely to die in a road accident.

9. Look for the good

There is a famous quote by Fred Rogers, which sums this up beautifully:
“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.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Whilst there are people in the world who want to cause harm, there are far many more people who go out of their way to help, focussing on this can be a very positive way of reducing young people’s fears.
For example: after the bombing in Manchester, Sikh Gurdwaras stayed open all night offering food and shelter. Taxi drivers worked through the night taking people home free of charge, a homeless man rushed into the building to help those who had been hurt, people queued up to donate blood, and of course there was a massive fundraising effort for the families involved, including the One Love Manchester concert, which has raised over £4 million pounds for those affected by the attack.
Celebrate what is good about your local community and encourage active citizenship amongst the young people to help them feel part of the solution to local, national and international issues. There is plenty that young people can do to create positive change, from raising or donating money, clothes and toys to people affected by tragedies, to raising awareness about issues and campaigning against injustice using social media, creating films, or writing to newspapers and MPs. Young people have a voice and should be empowered to use it.

10. Assess and reflect

After the discussions have taken place, provide some space and time for reflection. If the young people have taken on lots of new information and heard a variety of different viewpoints, it can be helpful for them to have time to think them through and seek further information to ensure that they have a clear understanding.
Adopt a whole school approach to the issue, make sure that those working in pastoral care know the issues that have been discussed and are prepared to support students and signpost the young people to further places that they can seek advice and support.

EqualiTeach is working with the National Union of Teachers to deliver training days to support teachers to respond to young people’s questions and fears on 11th July in Manchester and the 12th July in London. For more information please e-mail sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

Further Resources:
Association for Citizenship Teaching: The Prevent Duty and teaching controversial issues: creating a curriculum response through Citizenship
British Red Cross – Teaching Resources
EqualiTeach – Universal Values: Responding Holistically to the Duty to Promote Fundamental British Values
The Guardian – Talking about Terrorist Attacks with Young People: Tips for Teachers
Schools of Sanctuary Resource Pack
Show Racism the Red Card: No Place for Hate

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