The day after the Capitol Hill mob, I knew I'd have some tough discussions with my high schoolers like my fellow teachers across the country. This is how I spoke to them about it.

By Alexandra Frost
January 08, 2021
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An image of a teacher speaking with her classroom.
Credit: Getty Images

On Thursday, a fellow teacher tweeted: "In your teaching career, how many times have you had a 'day after'?" Hundreds commented pointing to tragic events including 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Parkland school massacre, and George Floyd's death.

Now, teachers must add another "day after" lesson to their book of heavy but important moments to educate: the Capitol Hill mob who broke into the U.S. Capitol building in order to stop lawmakers from certifying the 2020 election results.

This week and for weeks to come teachers will do their jobs by debriefing students, asking them to question and analyze both the events that transpired and their beliefs around politics, humanity, and more. Like most difficult moments in our teaching careers, all of a sudden our trauma training, years of experience facilitating debates and discussion, and our ability to remain objective while asking our students to think deeply will be put to the test. We can and will do it for our kids.

Here are tips to navigate these discussions that can also be helpful for parents having these conversations with their kids at home.

Not shying away from hard questions.

Just an hour after the Capitol was breached, even though school was over, my high schoolers from my class in Cincinnati started messaging each other and me on our class messenger system. "How did this even happen?" "Can they do that?" Not exactly, I thought. These hard questions that even adults around the country are asking formed the basis for our conversation the next day.

Having these conversations is important. One mistake teachers could make on this tough topic is not addressing it at all, says James Rodriguez, Ph.D., a licensed social worker, psychologist, and senior research scientist and director of trauma-informed services at the McSilver Institute in New York. "Do not be afraid of the topic. Assume children are watching and listening, and are tuned in," says Dr. Rodriguez. "The biggest problem teachers face is avoiding the topic because it's too difficult."

Allowing space for opinions and feelings.

These conversations, and my students' education in general, aren't about what I think, but about discovering their own personal truths. The quickest way to interfere with that is to personally take a side. Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., psychologist and author in Grand Rapids, Michigan, agrees. "The teacher should remain impartial from the standpoint of a political party," says Dr. Beurkens. "Discussion should be encouraged by allowing kids to share their observations, thoughts, and feelings with an emphasis on discussing in a respectful way."

To prevent prematurely taking sides, I started with the facts. What do we already know? We explored a specific timeline of the day, practicing using objective words. Then we moved into feelings both the students and those around them experienced when they saw the news. One student responded by explaining the "gross feeling" he had in his stomach. Another said it reminded her of coups she'd heard about in her family's home country. Others discussed shock, and also lack of shock that something like this happened this year.

Teaching civil listening and speaking.

Dr. Rodriguez says this is the takeaway teachers should go for in these lessons. "By having a calm conversation, you are giving the message of what we want to have happen," he says, and that teachers have the chance to show students that what happened in the Capitol is "not the way we handle problems."

Adults can help kids frame conversations in a less combative, but still assertive tone, by teaching some phrases like these:

  • I believe
  • From my point of view
  • From my experiences
  • In my opinion
  • I see what you are saying, and...

I aim to give all students equal voice and space to speak and listen. This may be the only place in a child's day where they get the time and space to explore their feelings on a subject they may not even know they are thinking about. Each child will have the chance to share equally and with the same time and importance as everyone else.

Avoiding inducing additional panic.

Teachers around the country were up in the night worrying about how to best talk to their kids on the "day after." But adults may be overthinking the difficulty of their job. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says, "Adults typically don't have to do much more than invite kids to share and create a safe space for conversation."

Adults should focus on reassuring kids of their safety, and the safety of their loved ones. "Teachers should be calm but direct so as to not stir up more confusion or uncertainty," adds Dr. Chaudhary. A panicky adult or teacher can make a kid even more concerned than they were before, which is the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

Not pretending to have all the answers.

Ending our session with the high schoolers with "what we need to know next" led to some interesting questions and observations. They concluded they'd need to know response time and total numbers of police present at both the Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol event to compare and form opinions about the differences between the two—something that many were quick to point out on social media. They concluded they'd need to learn more about the 25th Amendment in order to know what can happen to the president after lawmakers suggested invoking it to remove Trump from office. Grade school kids would likely conclude different things, but they left knowing what they wanted to learn next and how to find the answers.

Being aware of the potential for more intense feelings.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., psychologist and pediatric mental health expert in Ridgefield, Connecticut, says it's important to be aware of some kids who may be "highly affected." Those can include children who have anxiety. More than 7 percent of kids aged 3 to 17 have diagnosed anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"What you bring to the table when a stressor happens really determines how you manage that," says Dr. Capanna-Hodge. "If you are already very activated or have a history of anxiety, those [children] are more sensitive to their environment and their parent's stress."

For children of color, Dr. Rodriguez recommends teachers consider that the images coming from the events at the Capitol will be more difficult. "Seeing the confederate flag waved in the Capitol can be beyond disturbing, and has a whole different meaning," he says. "It can send chills and trigger people's stress response to a greater level."

Looking for signs that kids are distressed or anxious is also critical. Those include self-isolation, avoiding interaction and discussion, chewing nails or other anxious behaviors, defiant or verbal aggression, and irritability or tantrums, says Dr. Beurkens.

As teachers, we will do what we do every day, just on a harder day, and work to help each of these children understand and process the troubling, but hopeful, world around them.

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