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How to Help Kids Navigate a Heavy World

We live in heavy times. News headlines have been worrisome for several years running, and that’s on top of the global pandemic and all the attendant trauma that so many people have experienced. In classrooms, the role of a teacher in helping students navigate tough realities can be tricky, especially when educators are often unjustifiably accused of trying to influence young minds in dangerous ways. Whether the general public likes it or not, however, it’s nearly impossible to educate kids effectively and not have an influence (a positive one, if we do our jobs right) on how they grow and learn. When students are struggling, teachers must help them. How is it possible to be sensitive to what kids might be going through and not overstep the boundaries of what belongs in classroom instruction?

Be Compassionate

When conversations about scary or polarizing current events make their way into class, it can be hard to know what to do. We don’t want to shut kids down, but it is also important to understand that not everyone in the room is equipped to have a productive or mature discussion, or that they are not already experiencing trauma from the subject at hand. In the interest of making sure that we lead with compassion for anyone who might be hurting, it helps to have protocols ready that judiciously allow students to express themselves to an extent without causing anyone to feel threatened. 

For example, if a class discussion takes a tangential turn toward a sensitive topic, it might be best to pause the conversation. Then, seek out the advice of colleagues and school leaders (the latter is a necessity for disciplinary purposes if a student meant to be offensive) for what to do next in terms of whether the topic should be raised again in class or dropped. In the meantime, if the students involved meant no harm to others, privately set up time to talk with the individuals who wanted to share their thoughts and express that while their ideas were not given airtime in class, their role is valued in the classroom setting. We don’t want to send the message that just because someone’s ideas could not be discussed at a specific time and place, they are not valid contributors to the learning in more general terms. 

Maintain Safe Spaces

First and foremost, the job of a teacher is to keep all students safe, both physically and emotionally. It is also our job to make sure that students treat one another with respect, that they listen to one another, and that we create a classroom space that does not allow for bias and racism. While one student may urgently feel the need to express an opinion, another student may find that perspective offensive. For that reason, having the strength to interrupt a loaded statement (sometimes, the word “ouch” is enough to let a student know they’ve said something inappropriate) or manage a difficult moment is a necessary component of any educator’s wheelhouse. It might not be easy to act in just a few short seconds, but students rely on teachers to keep classroom spaces safe. Needless to say, following up as needed after class is essential, both for maintaining trusting relationships and for ensuring that expectations around classroom behavior are clear. 

Prioritize Resourcefulness

When kids want to talk about something complicated and the classroom isn’t the right space, there is still a way to validate their concerns and avoid being dismissive. Without providing specific resources for reading or perusal, we can remind students of the many valid ways to learn about controversial topics, from giving them a list of school databases that contain credible sources to taking a trip to the school library so that they can explore their ideas with the guidance of media specialists. Part of the job of being a teacher is to give kids ways to independently and gradually figure out how to look at the world around them with the right resources, rather than letting them fend for themselves with the many unreliable sources of information that exist in far too many online spaces. If they know where to get information, students will have better tools with which to navigate complex issues.

Get Support from Experts

Many newsworthy events come with a significant emotional toll, which is why taking advantage of mental health support in a school building is key to handling the challenges that arise. In particular, school counselors and school psychologists are a teacher’s biggest assets in helping to promote an emotionally functional classroom space. When charged moments arise in class and everyone needs to take a step back, it’s also up to the teacher to determine which students might need extra support beyond classroom instructional practice. That is when consulting a trained mental health expert is key, and luckily, most schools have highly experienced practitioners in house to assist.

Schools are, and must continue to be, places where students can explore their interests with the help and good judgment of education experts. As global wars rage, diseases spread, rights are stymied and racism continues to be an ever-present reality that shows no signs of fading, both adults and kids are feeling the toll of a world that seems to be in serious trouble. It is only natural that kids will turn to the adults they trust, teachers in particular, to help them navigate the situations that disturb their sense of peace. While maintaining a safe classroom space for kids, we can both uphold the importance of doing the right thing and ensure that we remain mindful of what we are responsible for managing within the scope of teaching practice. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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