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Making Space for Difficult Discussions

Following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, guidance for educators and families to support productive conversations about traumatic events
Line drawing of students in conversation

After the violence at the U.S. Capitol, educators, caregivers, and students across the country are navigating a tangled web of emotions, perhaps wondering how the nation can move forward.

To help students and school communities make sense of complex feelings and understand the context of the events, members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty offer guidance and resources to structure and support the conversation around the insurrection, its causes, and its potential fallout.

In the Classroom

"It is both challenging and necessary for educators to respond to emotionally and politically charged moments of violence," says teacher-educator Eric Shed of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. But the complex emotions and historical tensions that have surfaced may feel overwhelming. To help guide educators and structure discussions, Shed offers five steps, along with helpful resources.

  1. Any plans for classroom discussion should start with self-reflection on your own feelings around the event in question. Facing History expands on this need and provides great guidance for teachers.
  2. Provide space for individual reflection and an optional collective reflection, since students, too, need an opportunity to process their emotions, which may range from anger and fear to indifference. This article introduces additional ideas to help students navigate emotion. And this lesson, created by educator Rebecca Schouvieller, provides choice for individual and collective reflection, considers the local context of the school, and allows space for reactions and ways forward.
  3. Review the facts about what happened. Ask students what they know and what questions they have. Providing a succinct explanation or a short overview will lay the groundwork for deeper discussion and help resolve existing uncertainty. These graphics and articles can be used to provide the needed information.
  4. Discuss, surface, and try to understand the larger issues. Two potential issues to discuss could be the assault on the democratic process and comparing law enforcement’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and to the storming of the Capitol. This Twitter discussion provides ideas to help structure the conversation.
  5. Once a firm understanding is established, teachers can further explore issues, analyze historical comparisons, evaluate the response of political leaders, or discuss how the country can move forward.  

Supporting Conversation in Times of Crisis

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an expert in education in settings of armed conflict, notes that peace is conflated with the absence of visible physical violence. “Ideas of American exceptionalism can often compound thinking that this is a country at peace and that unchecked power and armed insurrection happen elsewhere and not here,” she says. Yet the events at the Capitol reflect that extremism and violence are very much present and are especially experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

“As in other conflict settings, young people seek to connect their experiences of current crises to history that can help to explain how we got where we are and to tools and supports that can prepare them to be build futures centered on justice.” To support students, Dryden-Peterson often turns to picture books as openings to these conversations with both children and adults. Three books she recommends are:

  • Where Are you From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim. This book looks at how caring others can help us understand ourselves as part of a collective.
  • The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Adra Deedy and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. It explores authoritarianism through the eyes of a rooster and shows how we can each use our voices.
  • The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The book connects current struggles for justice to history, and it places the reader in an active position to consider how to step up individually and continue the collective fight.

Supporting Conversation at Home

Caregivers at home will need to think about how to provide support in developmentally appropriate ways. “Children of different ages will have different concerns, and so you need to let the child direct the conversation,” says Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common Project. “Find out what their concerns are, make room for their questions, and know how they’re processing and making meaning out of the events first.” Younger children may just need to be reassured that they and their loved ones are safe; however, older children and teens may have more complex questions around how or why these events happened.

“It’s a moment for reflection and for connecting this to other events in history involving racism and threats to democracy," says Weissbourd. "Teens need to understand that in other tough times like these, people were able to prevail and protect democracy, and that democracy is both beautiful and fragile — every generation must recommit to protecting and strengthening it. Modeling for them that, as a family, you’re all engaged as constructive citizens is crucial.”

Meeting Different Needs

Rhonda Bondie and Khalya Hopkins, co-teachers of the Teaching Exceptional Learners in Inclusive Classrooms module, advise that when creating space for students to express and process their feelings during a traumatic event, educators need to center and embody the values and behavior they want to see in the world. This means providing different ways for students to process events and have difficult conversations. “While many educators may shy away from these difficult conversations because they may see them as ‘too political’ or ‘too delicate,’ we must remember that the outside always comes inside,” says Hopkins. “While adults may be practicing avoidance, our young people are diving into these discussions. We must be there to facilitate, guide, and encourage students to be change agents. However, we must also honor those who wish to pull back from the chaos and take time to themselves, if necessary, to determine their next steps as we all deserve grace during these times.”

To leave ample room for students to make the choices that are right for them in times of chaos, Bondie and Hopkins suggest:

  • Intentionally building in time for self-reflection and discussions alone. Trying to combine reflection with tasks and assignments sends a message that there isn’t really space for reflection.
  • Recognizing that emotions don’t stop when the reflection time does. Transitioning from this space to class work can be challenging. Instead, deliberately point out to students that it’s not possible to stop emotions after a certain amount of time.
  • Encouraging students to pause and acknowledge feelings and move forward with learning when they are ready.

More on How to Broach Difficult Topics

"Different students will bring different kinds of perspectives and exposures with them into the classroom. So I think when a teacher is trying to engage a hard topic, whether it's a hard element of history or a controversial issue in our contemporary debates, it's really important to start by bringing to the surface what's already in students' minds,” Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics Director Danielle Allen told the Harvard EdCast last October, in a conversation about educating for democracy. Whether using a Google doc or a whiteboard, let students say what comes to mind for them and record the emotion. “I think it's really important that teachers be able to see what the starting points are, both analytically and emotionally that students have for engaging with these issues."

How to Help Children Cope with Trauma

  • Listen to how they're processing the event.
  • Prepare to answer the "why" questions — simply, and tailored to a child's age.
  • Protect them from traumatic media coverage.
  • Model the response you want to encourage.

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