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Connecting with Kiev: Helping Students Process Russia-Ukraine War

Violence and war are two of the more challenging lessons to teach our students, especially when they may directly impact a particular group of students. With the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine only revealing the sheer brutality of humanity -- as opposed to our capacity for diplomacy -- we need to equip ourselves to answer students' questions about the war, why it is happening, and how we can help. Additionally, we should be prepared to balance the harsh realities of the situation with ways our students can aid refugees and other students who may have family in Europe that the war has displaced. 

Here is how you can help your students process the Russia-Ukraine war.

Listen to Their Concerns

The first and possibly the best thing you can do for your students struggling to process the war is to listen to their questions and concerns. Do not dismiss their feelings, as some students may be showing signs of greater stress and anxiety that a school counselor may need to address. This may be especially true if your students have family in Ukraine, read headlines of threatened retaliation from Russia, or parents express anxiety over the war. Facing uncertainty at this magnitude can create feelings of powerlessness.

Address the Concept of War

For older students, come right out and hold an open discussion about the war in general. Give your students space to express their opinions and mediate any conversation. Set sensitivity guidelines, as war may have directly impacted some of your students. You may also consider discussing the war in a historical context, pointing to Russia-Ukraine conflicts in the past and contextualizing the conflict in greater detail.

Why do this? Wouldn't this cause further anxiety?

Students learn about war, from World War I to the Algerian War, in high school -- that's a fact. Turning a blind eye to past conflicts would be to deny history. When we put war in academic terms, it helps us create emotional distance while still holding onto the significant moral lessons these instances carry. Learning about war through headlines does not create the space one needs to fully process and understand the facts of the war.

When you remove the headlines from the Russia-Ukraine war, you can start to understand it academically instead of engaging in fear, hopelessness, and stress. You should reiterate to your students that the casualties of this war, as with any other, are not typical -- any death of this nature is not normal. But you should make sure that they understand that fear only cocoons us in fear; it does not encourage us to act positively.

Discourage Discrimination

Some of your students may be Russian and facing shame over their or their parent's native country. They may also be facing discrimination because of their cultural background. Make it clear to your class that this type of discrimination is uncalled for and unacceptable. 

Take Action

Part of feeling powerless is not knowing if Russia will retaliate against the United States or not. It is feeling powerless to help. It could be that they are having difficulty processing their role in the world instead of the war itself. Engage in positive action and aid to help your students cope. 

In times of crisis, the United States will occasionally relocate families from other countries, as they often do for families in the Caribbean and Latin America. However, the United States does not yet have a resettlement or sponsorship program for Ukrainian refugees. Aid, therefore, must be sent overseas. Because of this, make sure your students know that they can only do so much to help. But, even if it's a little, it is still assisting refugees.

Consider holding a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees and donating to a certified charity. Or, reach out to a shelter or orphanage and hold a clothing and amenity drive.

Dissuade Despair through Compassion

War can put many things into perspective for communities privileged enough not to have faced it: war does not discriminate, and war is cruel. It's easy to give up faith in humanity. Instead of promoting this despair, engage in compassion.

Express care and concern for those affected by the war. Let students know that even though many bad things happen repeatedly, there will always be people who want to help -- like them. Teaching compassion and justice for all people may give your students a new charge: to act in a way that does not encourage war, hatred, and crime.

Written by Amelia Ellis
Education World Contributor
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