The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia this past week — the haunting scene of hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis carried torches onto the grounds of the University of Virginia in a night rally filled with fire and hateful speech — has left our students feeling confused and scared about the world in which they live. As a result of this staggering display of racism, our students have more questions than ever, and parents and educators who are experiencing their own shock and disbelief are struggling to find the right words to offer. It’s a difficult topic, but NEA President Lily Eskelsen García encourages families and educators to find a way to confront the issue. Find all of NEA's resources on this topic at: NEA.org/Charlottesville.
“Do not shy away from talking about this terrible topic with the young, I beg you. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than a conversation on race. But do it, because how we feel about race; how we react to racism informs how we feel about and react to all other forms of bias and prejudice. Children of all races, religions, all gender attractions and gender identities, of all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions and wonder and think and be angry and be comforted,” Eskelsen García writes in her blog, Lily’s Blackboard. “It’s not important that we, as adults, know all the answers. It’s important that we let them ask all the questions and explore the complexity of our human family. And it’s important that children know that there is right and there is wrong.
The National Association of School Psychologists also offers the following tips for talking to your students about racial violence and other national tragedies:
Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
Create time to listen and be available to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
- Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
The Oregon Education Association stands firmly on the side of the peaceful protestors who've stood up against racism and facism, in Charlottesville and beyond. Our union believes that all students, regardless of zip code, race or gender, deserve to pursue their education without fear of discrimination or their own safety. We will continue to provide resources to our members for speaking out against hate speech and creating safe spaces for our students to learn and grow; use #CharlottesvilleCurriculum to find and share education resources that address the recent acts of violence in our country. (This hashtag was created by Melinda Anderson, a journalist and contributor to The Atlantic).