How to Talk to Kids about Terrorism, Politics, and Unrest in the World Today

Scary things happen. Kids can be traumatized by news media, for example. (I've interviewed Dr. Steven Berkowitz who proved just this point. ) However, when students are most upset is when that scary world out there invades the real world “in here.” When students fear that their future is threatened, they will start losing sleep and getting very upset. As educators, we need to understand some ways we can respond. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers that will work in every situation.

[callout]Today's post is in response to this month's question from the Cathy Rubin's Global Search for Education “How do you as a teacher support students who have confusing things going on in their world? I've decided to write this like a conversation I have with my students. Maybe it will help some of you.[/callout]

I remember when the Paris bombings happened my students were getting ready to go on a trip to Washington DC. There were discussions about Washington being “shut down.” And, many of my students were afraid for their life. Some students were crying, and other students were losing sleep

In this post, I'm going to share with you portions of the conversations I have had relating to unrest. Sometimes it has been terrorism — lately, it has been political unrest.

I hope these narratives help you as you work to help children (and adults) move past fear into productive uses of their time. As Gandalf says,

We cannot help the times in which we live, on the way in which we live the times.

Let's live them well.

1. The Adults in Your Life Will Do Their Best to Keep You Safe

I was preparing to take students to Dubai. Unknown to them, I have some well-connected people I call to see if certain locations are safe. So, the week before each trip, I make that phone call to double check. I received a callback that went like this:

“If you're going to Dubai to this event, you're probably safer than you would be on the streets of your own city.”

So, I made the final “go ahead, well wishers” and we were going to go.

But I had grandparents and well-wishers” calling me crying begging us not to go. They saw things “on the news” that showed that the “Middle East” wasn't safe. (Some people say Georgia “isn't safe” because Atlanta has some scary places. We live 4 hours outside Atlanta, and that would be a false assumption. I use this with those who don't understand how big some countries are.)

2. We See What See What We Look for in the World

Your Personal Filter.

When you look for something to fear you find what you look for. It's just like looking for the color red of the color blue or the color green. If I ask you to look for color suddenly you can find all kinds of things that affect color. It's just how we're wired. If were playing Where's Waldo we look for Waldo.

If we are playing look for danger where were going, then we find danger where were going. It's just in our nature. So, were constantly looking for danger where we see it.

So those who are disappointed at the loss of Hillary Clinton, are going to look at danger for Clinton supporters. And those who supported Donald Trump, are going to search for threats for Donald Trump supporters. That is how we are wired.

You see, every time I'm going on a trip that location is in the front of mind of those who are in my circles. So, they are more “in tune” to the news from Ireland, India, the Middle East, China, or wherever it is I'm heading traveling. There's always something bad happening everywhere (and good), but the way the world works is that the news media likes to report bad things, so we'll watch more TV and they can sell more ads. You have to look for the good to find it.

The Social Media Filter Bubble

Then, you have Facebook, which has algorithms designed specifically to give us what we like. So the more we like something, the more it gives us of that same thing. So, we have a filter that looks for things that are threats in the areas that were looking for, but we also use a social media service that amplifies that filter and gives us more of what were seeking. So, it is easy to go on Facebook and think the world is coming to an end. Even Google may use that somewhat based on sites we've been to before.

So, I think we have to talk to kids openly and honestly about filter bubbles. The filter bubbles we create in the filter bubbles our world creates for us to ” help us” may feed our paranoia and hatred if we're not careful.

3. Risk Is Everywhere You Go

Ironically, the day I said “yes, we're going to Dubai” – I walked out of the front door of the school to my car. A Mom on her cell phone sped by and didn't see me. If I hadn't been paying attention, I would have died four feet from the front door of the school where I teach every day. I could have reached out my pinky finger and smudged the dust off her car if I had wanted. She was so close that I wondered how she didn't run over my toes.

To this day she has no idea that she almost ran me over. She was clueless.

[callout]So, when my students were traveling to Washington, DC after the Paris attacks, I told them the story of the filters we have and also how parents work to keep them safe and finished up with how risk is everywhere.[/callout]

Do These Conversations Make a Difference?

I had no idea what an impact this would have on my students. Talking about the Paris attacks and the attacks in general did make a difference.

And of course, I was shaped by several people I had interviewed on my podcast. Dr. Steven Berkowitz was probably one of the most helpful I've ever interviewed.

But it was the phone call I got the next day that made a real difference. A mom called me. She said,

I so appreciate the conversation you had with the class yesterday about the trip. Before you talked to her, my daughter was crying all the time. She just knew that she was going to die on the trip to Washington DC. And she would watch the news and every time she saw anything about the Paris attacks, she would start crying again because she said it was can happen to her. But, whatever you said made a difference.

What You Can't Say

I notice I never told the kids that it was going to be safe and that there were not going to be any issues. I merely pointed out that there's danger everywhere and that there were adults committed to protecting them. That's all I really could say.

Parents and those who say “I'll never let anything bad happen” —  you're setting yourself up for failure. Sadly, something bad happens to many of us at some point in our lives. You can't say “I'll never let anything bad happen to you.” You can say, the other adults in your life and I will do everything in our power to keep you safe.

What We Can Say

  • We can reassure children that we are with them and that we will work and do our very best to keep them safe.
  • We can also ask them to keep vigilant and keep their eyes open and use good common sense when they travel.
  • We can remind them to take the advice of those who are around them and to be wise as they travel. As one who is taking kids around the world, it is something that you have to tell kids it's not enough for the adults to give advice, the kids have to take it themselves.

Fear of Our Country's Political Situation

But, now kids are afraid of a different thing. They're afraid of their own country. I think this quote from Dr. Eugene Griessman and Pat Williams's book Lincoln Speaks to Leaders is a powerful one. They say,

The world today seems different from the world I left in April of 1865. Yet in many ways, not that much has changed. Today's plays have the same plots as those performed in the 1800s. Only the names have been changed. The human condition remains the same.

When I read today's newspapers, the crime, the politics and the scandals, sound remarkably like those from the newspapers of the 1800s. Individuals — and nations — still pursue their own interests. People still love and hate, are generous and petty, trusting and suspcious, tolerant and judgmental, honest and crooked, kind and vicious.

Rulers still send their young people off to war. Both sides still believe that they fight for a good cause — for God and country and lofty principles — just as they always have… History's story is often a sad one, but not always, History tells us people can be deceived, but not all the people all the time. For me, that's a hopeful lesson from history.

Do not believe that our time and generation gets an exemption. There often times of unrest. There are times of fear.

4. Perspective on the Times in Which We Live

The One Thing You CAN Control.

If you've heard one of my keynotes, there is something I repeat:

The only thing I can control is ME.

The only thing you can control is YOU. The most debilitating disease that plagues our world is the lie that

“I am helpless.”

followed by

“I can do nothing.”

I can control me, my classroom, and myself far more than I think. Consequently, I am at the center of my Att-I-tude.

Meet “Tough” Charlie

Recently, I met a man named Charlie in the Atlanta airport. Surprisingly, at age 92, he has worked in education his whole life except for some time in the military. I asked about his greatest accomplishment. He said:

“It was when I led my district in Arkansas to integrate. I got death threats and the FBI had to watch my house because the KKK threatened to bomb it. It was a hard time, but that was the best contribution to the world that I made in my whole life.”

Impressively, Charlie was one of the first on the beach at D-Day and one of the first to land in Japan in World War 2. Out of curiosity, I asked him, “how did you make it through these times.” He said:

“I had to be tough because times were tough.”

In my experience, tough people don't complain or spend their time in pointless conversation, they take action and do positive things to move the world forward one step at a time.


Do You Make the World Better Where You Are?

Know what you believe and act on it. Make a choice. You don't drift into port; you steer there. We become what we think about every day. Do you know who you want to be?

Related to this season in the US, one of my favorite aspirations is that I want to:

Be a person “whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times.” Sir Robert Shirley Banorott

Do Things to Make the World a Better Place

I tell my students not to get distracted by the people who are long on words and short on action. As for me, I will try to be an individual who inspires others to use their power to make the world a better place.

I also commit to being a woman of great action, love, and persistence. As for me, I will continue to be a person who inspires others to use their power actually to DO something to make the world a better place.

I'd rather spend my energy preventing future tragedies and sparking future triumphs in the lives of those in my circle of influence. You can too.

As We Move Forward

These are not easy times. Facebook is full of people full of hatred of one another. Blaming each other for the world's ills and professing that they and their side are truly the noblest.

Those who claim to be supporting a noble cause while dropping profanity and insults have just contradicted their cause.

I see lots of hate and filter ignorance at work.

As for me, I'm praying for this:

Morality. Kindness. Love. Service. Prayer. Faith. Hard work. Truth. Wisdom. Religious freedom. An unbiased press. Public servants. May these be things that become fashionable again.

In the meantime, have conversations with students that count. They need you to be the adults and help them reflect. They do not need you to use them as pawns or to program more hatred into their minds.

And the saddest thing is that what I have just written will be interpreted by both “sides” in the recently US political election as an endorsement of their own thinking when in reality, the person who is most wrong in the world is the one who claims perfection and perfect nobility. For life is short and we are all flawed and prone to stumble and hurt our fellow human being.

There's a reason that Abraham Lincoln put his most scathing letters in a drawer to determine if he'd mail them later. He knew that in the heat of fury and anger that he was less than the president he was called to be. For when unrighteous anger rules your heart, goodness cannot rule your soul.

And yes, dear friends, I've just shared with you some of the things I've been talking about recently with my students relating to politics. This is our watch and our time and it makes me furious that grown adults have lost the ability to see the world through the eyes of their brother and sister. We all wear suits of skin and life will end far too soon. May we not be the kind of person that when we're gone, people are glad.


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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Stephen Downes November 22, 2016 - 9:16 pm

Well stated. And right on.

I’ve been to “the most dangerous city in the world” several times. Bogota. Caracas. Beirut. Johannesburg. They are all lively cities and I would visit each of them again.

And I was robbed in Berlin and got really bad food poisoning in Brussels. So you can never tell. But I’m on an airplane at this exact moment and I’ll be visiting both cities in a few days. Because they’re filled with lively people who helped me a lot when I ran into trouble.

So I know from first hand experience that what you say is exactly right.

Most people most of the time want to do good and they will be happy for the opportunity to do so.

Vicki Davis November 22, 2016 - 10:24 pm

Have a great trip!

Sarah B. November 27, 2016 - 2:51 pm

Thank you so much for your wonderful post on this topic. I’m currently in a Masters in Education program to become a high school social studies teacher, and I’ve been wondering how best to reassure my students at the school where I’m student teaching. I sincerely appreciate the fact that your approach is both reassuring and honest at the same time; I remember all too well from my own youth when adults would make what were clearly hollow claims/promises and try to sugarcoat the truth in the name of peace of mind.

Especially in terms of the current political climate, do you have advice on how to separate one’s own concerns as teachers out from the classroom conversation? I have some major concerns of my own about what the future holds, and while I would never just dump these on already-worried students, exactly, I also have questions about how to effectively walk that line between openness/honesty and discretion. I’d be interested in your thoughts!

Vicki Davis November 27, 2016 - 8:21 pm

Sarah- in my life there have been many times I had concerns about the future. We have to back up and have perspective. Fear is false evidence appearing real. I have often found that my greatest fears never happen and it was the fear itself that caused the worst repercussions. There are things to fear, certainly. But we have to keep perspective. I have found that reading history often gives me a loner term perspective on turmoil and trial. We live in a world full of media that feeds on fear. Don’t be played.


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