When Young People Have Big Questions: Russian War in Ukraine

Young boy reading the headlines on the Russia and Ukraine conflict
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
When our news feeds are filled with fear and violence from the Russian war in Ukraine, it can be difficult to manage our own anxieties, questions and worries, let alone managing those of the young people in our lives.However, young people will also be hearing news headlines, seeing potentially distressing images, noticing tension in the adults around them, and they need opportunities to discuss and unpick the current situation in a safe and supportive environment.This blog outlines some key tools and tips for supporting young people with their big questions!

1. Be proactive, not reactive

Don’t wait for the issue to be brought up by the young people. Without prompting, young people may never mention that they have been distressed by a news story, experienced related prejudice, or seen a graphic and upsetting image online. Alternatively, if things are brought up, this might happen at inopportune moments with adults (or other young people!) who are not prepared or equipped to discuss them.Educators can create opportunities in assemblies, form groups, citizenship and PSHE to talk about the conflict. 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 useful starting points.Parents and carers can create opportunities at home to open conversations, perhaps watching programmes like Newsround (BBC) together and following up with opportunities for young people to ask further questions and share their feelings and worries.

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 will help you understand where they are coming from in terms of their knowledge, assumptions, understanding and worries and therefore helps you know where to start in responding.This can happen in a conversation, or educators 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. If opening discussions at home, make it clear that no question is off the table. Young people pick up tensions around them which can lead them to thinking a certain topic is taboo and they might not be allowed to talk about it, so make it clear that you want to hear their thoughts and questions.In a school environment, 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 young people. 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: We don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t ask their question or express their opinion. Therefore, we will not laugh at others’ opinions, or shout each other down.Respect the feelings of others: We will think about the impact of our words and body language on others and try to express our opinions in a respectful fashion. We will listen to the opinions of others, even if they are different to our own.Direct challenges to the front of the room, not at each other: It is fine to disagree and challenge each other’s ideas. However, if we do disagree with something that someone else says we will direct our challenge to the front of the room, so that no-one feels attacked and the whole class remains involved in the conversation.It can be a good idea to create a space where young people can choose to go for some time out if they become upset or uncomfortable during the session. If this information is shared before the discussion begins they can take the decision as to whether they need this space, rather than the teacher needing to decide upon a course of action once an issue has arisen.For further information about how to create a safe space for sensitive discussion please see: https://equaliteach.co.uk/education/classroom-resources/faith-in-us/

4. Consider your own perspective

None of us comes 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 opening conversations on tricky topics (or indeed any topic) 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?As parents, carers or educators, you don’t have to stay completely neutral on all issues, in fact it may be inappropriate to do so. For example, it is completely fine to assert the values of human rights and equality.In addition, you do not need to know absolutely everything about an issue before discussing it. Admitting you don’t know the answer to a question and researching it with 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.Furthermore, some questions just don’t have answers! You don’t have to be able to explain why war happens, why Governments make the decisions that they make, or how to achieve world peace. You can explore these questions and consider different ideas and opinions. Using resources like books can be useful for exploring big concepts in a child friendly way.

5. Adopt a participatory approach

Supporting young people to explore sensitive issues requires a participatory approach, with shared control where adults and young people listen to each other and share ideas.At home, this can look like reflecting questions back to the young person, encouraging critical thinking, and exploring answers together using books, videos and other resources.In a classroom environment, it is important that the teacher is not the focal point of the discussion and that it is not dominated by one or two young people. Providing opportunity for small group discussions as well as whole class conversations provides young people with the opportunity to raise issues in a smaller group.In a whole class discussion the discussion should be carried and developed by the young people, with the facilitator just providing facts and reasoning and enquiry questions to help guide the discussion and help young people think critically about their ideas, 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.A speaking prop can be used to encourage only one person to speak at a time and to bring in quieter members of the group. However, young people should also have the right to ‘pass’ or remain silent.

6. Acknowledge the complexity of the issue

One of the reasons why discussing controversial topics can be so difficult is because there are often no easy solutions, and situations can be hard to understand. Therefore, don’t expect that a discussion will or even should come up with a solution.In a classroom, it is possible for multiple perspectives to be true at once, and for young people to discuss and disagree on a topic in a respectful way. It can be helpful to frame the work as dialogue rather than debate – there is no side that ‘wins’ the argument at the end, rather it is an open forum where varying ideas and opinions can be heard and considered.

7. Be nuanced in your use of language

And encourage the same from the young people, correcting them if needed. Be specific: are you referring to actions led by a Government or civilians? (For example, ‘Putin has led an invasion into Ukraine,’ is more nuanced and accurate than ‘Russians are invading Ukraine’).  Be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes and remember that people will have different views and opinions on all ‘sides’ of a situation (for example, many Russians are protesting the actions of Putin, while others may support his actions).

8. 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 prejudice, misinformation or stereotypes, listen to them, recognise their emotions 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.Educators should take care to be sensitive towards young people who may have a personal connection to the issue, and remember that you may not always be aware of those connections, so be open and understanding.

9. Encourage critical thinking

We cannot always be at our young peoples’ 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.Be aware that often when news is unfolding there can be misinformation, and increasingly there are conspiracy theories linked to different issues. Support young people to question information, challenge misinformation, and to look for reliable sources.

10. Encourage Active Citizenship

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.If young people are passionate about an issue, they will often be looking for outlets to contribute, and this should be supported and encouraged. However, research shows the voices of young people are rarely heard when it comes to social issues; some are resigned to the idea there is nothing they can do to effect change, leaving them feeling hopeless.Encourage active citizenship amongst the young people to help them feel part of the solution. 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 by attending protest marches, 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 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.Schools should aim to 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Skip to content