Veteran Teachers on How to Talk with Your Students About the War in Ukraine

Wondering how to talk with students about the war in Ukraine, and how to help alleviate fears and worries while teaching the facts and age-appropriate perspectives of war and violence?

We asked a small group of TeacherVision members to tell us how they are approaching this teaching, behavior management, and social-emotional learning challenge. Here’s what they told us.

talking with students about the war in ukraine

How Are You Talking About the War in Ukraine with Your Students?

Editor's Note: Shortly after the war in Ukraine began with the Russian invasion, we reached out to a group of TeacherVision members and asked them to tell us how they were planning to discuss these events with their students. Following are the responses submitted by 4 veteran elementary, middle, and high school teachers and an elementary school principal. They have been lightly edited for language and clarity.

Share Feelings and Build Empathy

Chris Kefer, elementary arts teacher, Annapolis, MD

I try to be mindful of current events and how those events affect my students. It sounds kind of academic to say this, but I always try to remember that in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the first tier is physiological needs, followed by safety needs; all other tiers come next. If a student is concerned about the recent events in Ukraine and does not have an outlet to safely communicate their questions and feelings, they will not be successful in completing other tasks. Students need a safe space to come together and work through what they are feeling. 

I tried incorporating a time during class for students to write down any feelings they have about the recent events in Ukraine. I asked them to include another sentence explaining how someone their age who lives in Ukraine might be feeling right now, in an attempt to get them to empathize with the situation. If you have 1:1 devices, you can also send out a short Google Form or other means of sharing the information. Doing so will allow you to check in on the social-emotional needs of your students discreetly. Many students may feel more comfortable going this route rather than being put on the spot in front of a group discussing potentially sensitive subject matter with their peers.

Answer the Burning Questions for as Long as it Takes

Candacee White, general and specialist educator, Tulsa, OK

When dealing with disturbing current events, it’s important to keep students calm, and be honest with them at the same time. In my classroom, I focus on answering questions for as long as necessary. Their questions will not challenge your understanding of post-Soviet Union history, or anything like that. Some of them want to know about the tanks that Russia is using to invade, because they think tanks are cool. Other students just want to know that they and their families are safe, understandably. No one is wrong, and all of their questions are valid.

When I feel that I have answered all of the burning questions my students have, I make sure to emphasize empathy. Children just like my students are having to leave their homes, could be losing their homes, and might even lose loved ones. We must communicate to our students the need to empathize; to imagine what it might be like to live through this. Often we will brainstorm as a class, ways we might be able to help. Even though there might not be much we can do, this exercise is good for getting students into a compassionate frame of mind.

Get Them Talking About it with Guided Discussions

Christopher Kenny, elementary math teacher, OH

There is no question that the conflict in Ukraine is scary and worrisome, especially for students of all ages. To ease students’ minds about the crisis in the Ukraine I have my students verbalize their feelings to each other during circle time. I ask them to share one word that describes how they feel about the war in Ukraine. Doing this helps the students realize how many of their peers feel the same way as they do. I try to guide the follow-up responses as necessary - we spend maybe 1-2 minutes on it as a check-in, which I think has been helpful. I probably won’t do it for long - there is a lot to cover in circle time! But for now it’s a good way to check in with my students.

With older students, I’ve seen other teachers asking students to make connections using facts and sources by taking a few minutes in class to have them describe in a couple of sentences what they have learned about the war in Ukraine from their news sources or research, no matter how small. They are then having offshoot discussion about what facts they have learned that are the same/different, and sometimes making factual research a class activity.

Reflection, Inquiry, and Values - and the Versatile KWL Chart

Max Weinberg, elementary school principal, Chicago, IL

I have been thinking a lot about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In my own reflection and conversations with teachers, these three ideas stick out the most:

Values matter. Revisit your school's core values as you think about sharing limited resources. At my school, we have a pledge that tends to Safety, Truthfulness, Appreciation, Respect, and Responsibility. We commit to, each day, never stop learning and growing! There is always an opportunity to dissect human behavior with any age group using your core values as a tool. In the Ukraine-Russia conflict, discuss other developments and think about how we see core values being lived out in public or in service of those in danger. Conversely, discuss whether our fellow humans fall short of caring for others and building a better world as you learn about further developments.

Reflect honestly and openly. Unfortunately, conflicts are around us all of the time, and wars have defined the countries that we live in. If your students have already studied history dealing with political disputes or conflict, seek out connections for children around power, land, leadership, violence, and aggression and how limited resources are shared.

Part of being honest is being a conscientious consumer. Have older students look at how the Ukraine situation is gaining a lot of media coverage right now. Why is that? If it is justified, it may be interesting to think about other wars being fought that do not get as much coverage. For instance, why do we not hear about wars and conflicts in Ethiopia and Cameroon? Should local disputes receive as much coverage or resources from world superpowers in our own country?

Value inquiry. Even educators cannot be expected to follow every news story and development of the Ukraine-Russian conflict. Be honest with your students about how many details continue to come out. Then, put your students to work with you to develop some inquiry lines to research.

While many tools can launch students into inquiry, never forget the elegant power of the KWL (Know/Want to Know/Learned) chart. Use it to collect what students Know and what they Want to Know before starting some research. Use it to assess where students are with their understanding of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Then, use it to strategically collect factual resources. Video, audio, print - whatever your students can manage - can be used to craft meaningful follow-up conversations and/or group research. Once students have looked into their questions, they can add the information under the Learned heading on the tool.

Authentic Connection and Handle with Care

Tiphani Davis, high school English teacher, West Virginia

Students have had to deal with so many things over the past few years, and in many ways, the war in Ukraine seems like just another thing in a long list of tragic issues.  Just as we have handled the pandemic and the attack on the capital, and all the other things that have come to fruition for our students over the past few years, we must too handle this with care and offer students a space that is safe and open.

In my classroom, the first few minutes of class always begin in a discussion. There is never a set agenda or objective for this discussion, but rather an opportunity to connect with students.  Sometimes, I will pull topics from our ‘Topic Jar’ to foster student conversation. Many of the topics are around simple things like their favorite food or musician, and some topics deal with bigger issues like their plans for the future or current events. And sometimes I simply ask how everyone is doing or for them to share what’s new in their lives or how other classes are going.   Authentic connection is so important to build a strong and open classroom, especially during the current times.  More than anything, it’s important that our classrooms don’t become completely bogged down with planned lessons and activities where these honest conversations can’t happen.

With the war in Ukraine, I wanted to talk to students about it and hear how they were dealing with it.  I began the conversation around TikTok and how its use during this war is unprecedented.  Most of my students have a social media platform and so it served as a segue into the conversation.  We discussed things they had seen, moments that were both inspiring and heartbreaking, and I listened.  Sometimes the best we can do for our students is to listen to their concerns and give them a place to share their voices so they can begin to process the world around them.

Looking for resources to share with parents who might be struggling to help their kids understand war and violence? FamilyEducation, TeacherVision's sister site for parents, has an excellent article on how to talk to kids about war.

About the author

TeacherVision Staff

TeacherVision Editorial Staff

The TeacherVision editorial team is comprised of teachers, experts, and content professionals dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and relevant information in the teaching space.

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