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Tough Stuff: How to talk to your students and children about difficult topics

By: Gabrielle Hewitt on August 15th, 2022

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Tough Stuff: How to talk to your students and children about difficult topics

Crisis Management  |  Communication

School leaders, teachers and parents have had to navigate difficult conversations in the last few years. During the panedemic, they explained to students that the learning will be shifting again to virtual, that collaboration will look and feel different, that although “sharing is caring,” let’s pause on the sharing of supplies for now. The skill it takes to navigate these discussions with students and children is already complex; but add the sensitivity needed to when students are grappling with schooling and social loss, and we can appreciate that our leaders, teachers, and parents have had a crash course in communicating through disruption. 


And yet, adults may find the need to discuss even more complex issues – discussing national events such as the tragedies in Uvalde, TX, mass shootings, hate crimes, political events, protests, and even foriegn war. It can feel next to impossible to know how to open the door to these conversations to children and students, or even if those conversations are developmentally appropriate. But child development experts like Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media, say that “in the age of cell phone notifications, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage, when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories, it’s important to face this challenge head-on.” 


Given this enormous responsibility adults may feel, we are sharing a phased approach for communicating through disruption and crises, as well as our tips for how leaders, teachers, and parents can use this approach to speak with their younger charges. 


Approach to Crisis Communication 


For children younger than school age (less than 6 years old), they may not be able to understand complex, abstract concepts yet. Rather than go through the phases below, aim to communicate reassurance or addressing your/their feelings. Use phrases such as, “A really tragic event happened that makes me sad, and it’s okay to feel sad,” or “You’re safe, and we are safe.” 


For older children and teens, consider the following phases of communicating through a crisis:


Phase 1: The Sensemaking Phase

This phase starts immediately after a crisis happens. For the first 1-5 days after a crisis, we recommend leaders, teachers, and parents share what happened and why. The operating rule here is if you don’t make sense of a crisis for your students or children, someone else will. 


Consider a scenario where your school district needs to communicate disruptions to school bus routes. Even if you don’t have all of the information, you should communicate the what and why: “In our district and region, there is a severe shortage of bus drivers. We are working towards potential solutions so that students are not significantly impacted.” This message is short and direct while offering assurance that you are aware of a potentially disruptive situation. 


For more serious scenarios such as an act of violence, leaders, teachers, and parents may consider using phrases such as this: “There was a tragedy in a nearby city. These topics are hard to discuss, even for adults, but we are working to ensure that our community is safe, and we will share our plan to continue doing that in the coming weeks. I want you to feel free to ask about anything you may be wondering.” 


Phase 2: The Short-Term Response Phase 

In the next week or two of a crisis, leaders, teachers, and parents should consider their short-term response - how are they addressing immediate needs - Maslow (based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) before Blooms (based on Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills) is the working philosophy. Districts and schools consider meeting physical and social needs such as social-emotional support or meal delivery over academic needs. 


​​Consider the same bus driver shortage scenario. Your message may look like this: “In the short term, we will consolidate bus routes to account for all the students signed up for bus transportation at this time. This will have an immediate impact on the following neighborhoods by changing their pickup and dropoff times. We are hosting a school meeting next Tuesday directly after school to answer all of your questions regarding these changes.” This message provides a temporary solution on status while offering opportunities for your community to raise tensions and ask questions. 


For more serious scenarios, leaders, teachers, and parents may consider communication such as this: “There was unimaginable violence in another school district and some students and teachers were seriously injured. While we hope this never occurs in our community, we are working to keep everyone safe. We already have a sign-in and visitor screening process, a single, accessible entrance outside of arrival and dismissal hours, and security monitoring all entrances and exits. We are also working to see how else we might keep our community safe. If you have any questions, we will be hosting a school assembly to discuss more.” 



Phase 3: The Medium to Long Term Response Phase

During this phase, students and children’s social and physical needs may likely feel “met” and leaders, teachers and parents, can consider longer term plans. This is typically within a month to a month and a half of an initial trigger event or crisis. 


In the bus driver shortage scenario, your message may be the following: “We are working on a plan to increase our bus driver recruitment as well as incentives for people to become certified to drive buses. We are also partnering with a company who will provide us with additional drivers if needed. These measures are aimed to help us continue our bus service without future disruption.” 


For a more serious scenario, communication may speak to additional procedures to help with crises while offering more opportunities for student voice to be elevated. An example message may look like this: “Our district is working to ensure that we have a comprehensive safety plan to address any potentially dangerous situations. In the meantime, we want to include your voice in building this plan. What have you heard about school violence? Who or what do you think is at fault? Why do you think that? Have you ever felt unsafe in school?” 


Once you’ve communicated through the initial weeks and months after a crisis, leaders, teachers, and parents can focus on continuous communication beyond this emergency period. Depending on your comfort level, this could include asking your child or student about their thoughts and emotions on a topic, reminding them of your family or school values, discussing how some issues are connected (i.e. personal freedom and political rights), and most of all, providing reassurance. While it’s impossible to guarantee that students and children will always be shielded from difficult events, leaders, teachers, and parents, can always share that many, many adults are working to keep students safe and supported. 

About Gabrielle Hewitt

Gabby Hewitt is a Partner at Education Elements, working directly with large and small schools and districts to impact student growth and success. She spent six years in the classroom as an 8th grade U.S. History Teacher, first in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and later with KIPP DC. In her first year in the classroom, she was selected to receive the Maryland Association of Teacher Educators Distinguished Teacher Candidate award. During that time, Gabby also wrote the county-wide history curriculum for middle schools and assisted the Prince George’s County Social Studies Department with the rollout and integration of the Common Core State Standards. Gabby led teams as both the Social Studies Department Chair and Eighth Grade Level Chairperson before leaving the classroom to train and manage the development of resident teachers in her charter network. As the Manager of Professional Development for the Capital Teaching Residency program with KIPP DC, she developed skills in planning and facilitating adult professional development, project management, and effective teaching evaluation models. Gabby holds a B.S. in Political Science and a B.A. in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University. She earned her M.S. in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Born and raised in New Orleans, Gabby currently lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and three little ones. When she is not working, you can find Gabby pursuing her passion for photography or enjoying a good cup of coffee.

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