Talking With Children About War and Violence In the World

Talking to students about Ukraine?

Educators for Social Responsibility has prepared this guide for adults who are concerned about how to communicate with young people about difficult issues in the world.

Interested in using literature to teach about the war in Ukraine? Download the Teacher's Guide for The Day War Came.

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21. How can I approach teaching about war and other violence in the world?
When teaching about war and other violence in the world, it is best to follow a model of instruction built on inquiry. Begin by framing some essential questions, then assess what students know, and follow their questions. You can begin with three basic questions: What do students know?; What do they think they know?; and What are their questions?

You might map this information using a concept web. In order to build on this prior knowledge, have them engage in research and bring to class the information that they discover. Although this may not take you methodically through the material, it will raise and address the issues that are most salient for your students while maintaining their sense of engagement. Helping students to be conscious about the ideas, values, and evidence upon which they make their own decisions is the best preparation for democratic participation as adults.

This is also an opportunity to teach an understanding of ethical dilemmas. There are numerous ethical issues associated with the current world situation. Helping to illuminate these and engaging students in dialogue about what ethical standards are appropriate for judging our actions and the actions of others can be a particularly important learning experience.

These questions can be a starting point for exploring ethical standards of behavior:
  • Does the action inflict more or less harm on all or some groups affected by the action?
  • Does the action force anyone to engage in immoral or illegal acts?
  • Does the action contribute to greater safety and security in the short-run and/or the long-run?
  • Do the goals and desired outcomes of an action justify the means?
  • Does what is right, fair, and moral for one group or government conflict with what is right, fair, and moral for another group?
  • Is the desired action safe, smart, legal, and equitable for all/some groups?
  • Does the desired action meet important interests of all groups involved in the situation?

22. Should I teach elementary school children about the war and if so, how should I approach it?
Elementary-aged children, especially those in upper elementary schools, are aware of war and other global conflicts. There are many ways in which teachers can deal constructively with teaching about war and other controversial issues without either frightening or propagandizing children. See ESR's Teaching Elementary Children about Controversial Issues, including our Guidelines for Discussing Controversial Issues in elementary classrooms. One approach is called The Ten-Point Model for Teaching Controversial Issues. It is a version of the inquiry approach outlined above age-appropriate for elementary schools.

In The Ten-Point Model, students begin by pooling what they know and what they think they know about an issue. They also develop a list of things about which they want to find out more. This is followed by an information-gathering period during which students search for answers to the questions, particularly by interviewing parents, family members, and friends. Next, using the information they have collected, they correct any misinformation previously listed and develop more questions. This process continues until the students use their collected information in some type of culminating activity.

23. Are there moral and civic principles that I can use to help frame discussion with my students?
U.S. public schools have a civic responsibility to teach about the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution, such as liberty and equality. Within this framework, teachers can encourage students to explore and discuss how best to apply these principles in any given crisis or with a public policy issue. They can discuss what sorts of civic obligations and virtues are needed to sustain these values. Teachers can make clear that there is often disagreement about how best to apply those principles. And they can help students explore how well, historically, the U.S. government and citizens have lived up to these ideals and principles. Teachers can also use international documents to provide a framework for student discussion. For example, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights can help students draw upon principles and ideas that have been agreed upon by many countries around the globe, including the U.S.

24. Are there essential questions I can use to frame teaching and learning?
One challenge for teachers is to develop essential or overarching questions to help frame inquiry and discussion. Good questions help students to develop critical thinking skills and forge a deeper understanding of issues like this one. They also help students to think about and grapple with some of the complex issues provoked by a specific conflict or war.

In the current crisis, it is important to help students explore answers to questions about: a) the dynamics and history of the Middle East and our relationship with countries there; b) national and international responses to threats to world order; c) the ethical issues surrounding international crises; and d) the U.S. role in the world. See our list of Essential Questions about the War with Iraq.

25. How do I best guide discussions of complex and controversial issues?
Three factors make teaching complex, current issues particularly challenging. The first is that there is no one best solution. The second is that we will have to be patient as events unfold and information becomes available. The third is that in periods of conflict, tolerance for opinions that challenge mainstream ideas is often strained. It is important that we help our students to accept the ambiguity of not knowing the immediate solution and to learn to work with multiple perspectives on an issue.

One lesson that we can teach is that it is important not to accept simple or quick answers to complicated problems. Another is that it is possible to use ethical standards to assess how we can best proceed. As we discuss these complex issues in the classroom, it will be important to create an atmosphere in which differing views are considered and respected. The discussions can be used as an opportunity to consider not just differing student perspectives, but the views of people on various sides of the conflict around the world.

Although we would all like simple and quick solutions where justice is served, there are few simple answers to the complex political, international, and judicial issues posed by terrorism, war, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Students must become knowledgeable about government, international relations, cultures, politics, religions, gender roles, economics, and geography. They must read, question, and discuss. They will need our leadership in guiding and facilitating these discussions, and they will need to have a safe environment in which to make sense of their own thinking and the thinking of others. ESR offers these additional guidelines for teaching controversial issues.

We can also help students to develop a more complex understanding by introducing the concepts of win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose solutions to conflicts. Explore different ideas about what winning and victory mean. Examine different perspectives on the possible short and long-term consequences if the U.S. wins and Saddam Hussein's government loses. How can a win for some be a loss for others on the same side? How can you win in some ways and lose in others?

26. How can I deal with the wide range of opinions students may have?
Opinions about the war may vary greatly, from strong support to strong opposition, especially among older students. Because some students have close personal connections with those directly involved in the war--students whose family members are serving in the armed forces in the Persian Gulf, living in regions of the world that are central in the turmoil, or active in protests against the war--the disagreements among them could be significant and heated.

It is important to help students separate the issues of patriotism from agreement or disagreement with government policies. In addition, we can encourage students to clarify whether their opinions are about the character and actions of nations/governments or the character and actions of people who are citizens within a particular nation/government. It is also important to help students understand that one can support the troops who are fighting in the war and still oppose or raise questions about policy issues, about the use of war as a vehicle for resolving conflicts, or about U.S. involvement in war. We can communicate to students that different viewpoints enrich our understanding and can be shared without making personal attacks--it's a part of what it means to live in a democracy.

When discussing controversial issues, teach students how to engage in non-adversarial dialogue, rather than debate. In dialogue, the goal is to listen, to learn from others' perspectives, and to understand more deeply. Debate emphasises proving that you are right and that the other person/group is wrong. It is best to avoid the polarization produced by debates; instead, structure the conversation as a dialogue, where each position is illuminated so that it can be understood clearly. Additional lesson plans on promoting constructive dialogues and on conflict resolution are available through ESR.

As a first step in constructing a productive dialogue about the war, you may want to set some ground rules so that children feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions. The students themselves can help construct this list, which might include such things as "no put downs," "respect each other's feelings and points of view," and "let each person finish speaking before responding." You will want to communicate that this is an opportunity for them to hear the diversity of feelings and opinions about these issues and a chance to learn from each other. In terms of dealing with different opinions, you may want to have students formalise a respectful way of disagreeing by having students state their disagreements in the form of "I see things differently. I think that..." rather than telling other students that they are wrong. It is important that you and your students find ways to affirm different perspectives even if they are unpopular.

This kind of conversation is an important way for students to learn to appreciate the feelings of others. It is also an opportunity for them to comprehend and learn from the different perspectives of the students in their class.

27. In situations where students have parents or other loved ones involved in the war, how do I hold a respectful discussion that might include perspectives that are opposed to the war?
If teachers know that one or more of their students have parents or loved ones directly involved in the war, they may want to talk with those students in advance of any classroom discussions, if you are planning one. Share with the students that there is going to be a classroom discussion about the war. Let them know that you are aware that this may bring up some difficult feelings for them and you will be present for them in that event. You can check in to see if they may or may not want to be present in the room, or whether they want to be with a friend during that time. You may inquire whether they would like to speak to the class, thereby creating an opportunity for others to listen and learn about the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of their fellow students.

Before any classroom discussion, it is important that teachers first acknowledge that many people serving in the military, especially during times of war, are motivated by a powerful commitment to their country, the people in it, and the values that it stands for. Their commitment is so strong that they are willing to risk their lives. Teachers can also point out that many people who oppose the war are motivated by some of the same feelings and commitments. Historically, those who have fought in wars, and those who resisted injustice nonviolently, have, each in their own way, risked their lives.

In the United States, decisions to go to war are ultimately made by the President and Congress. Once the decision is made, even if they oppose the reasons for going to war, many people express their support for people in the military and hope for their well-being. While ongoing differences of opinion about the war will continue to exist, even within the military and the current administration, these differences do not need to negate many people's feelings of pride in the commitment of many in the military to serve their country. Nor do these differences need to negate many people's pride in the commitment of many protestors to utilise constitutionally protected forms of dissent to improve their country.

28. How do I address a situation in which a parent or loved one has been a casualty of the war, especially if I know there are differences of opinion about the war in my classroom?
First, make sure that your school has a crisis management team and grief counseling plans in place. When someone's parent or loved one dies or is seriously hurt, the primary focus of the class should be on ways to support their peer and acknowledge the tragedy during this painful time. Students who lose a relative may become fervently pro-government policies or might be angry at government policies, but be careful not to make assumptions about their reactions. It's important to keep checking in with the student. When discussions touch on potentially painful topics, it's useful to get a sense of whether they wish to be present or not. Asking the student directly, "What is it you need right now?" could be beneficial if the topic of war comes up.

29. If young people want to do something, is it appropriate to encourage them to act? What realistically can adolescents do?
Wars, terrorism, and military interventions are scary for adults and young people alike. They also evoke other strong feelings including anger, hatred, and expressions of emotion such as bravado, a desire for revenge, etc. One way to help young people deal constructively with these feelings is to engage them in taking actions that make a difference. There are many actions that young people can take, and possibly the most important one is to learn more about the issue. From there, however, it is important that young people learn to act to make a difference in their own environment first.

They can set up study groups with friends, organise a town meeting in their school or community to talk with others about their concerns or questions, put together a library shelf of books on the issue, or express their point of view in a letter to the editor. They also can join with adults or other young people who are helping to increase security in a wide variety of ways, such as fund-raising for programs like school mediation or peer education.

However, it is important that the children generate and implement the actions that they choose to pursue. Although it may be helpful for children to know the range of things that other children and adults are doing to make a difference, adults must remember not to enlist yung people in their own causes. Because young people know about a particular issue, it does not mean that it is their sole responsibility to solve the problem. They need to see adults actively engaged in solutions as well.

30. What should schools do if students wish to hold protests, vigils, and other types of demonstrations either in support of the troops or in opposition to the war?
Students may want to express their opinions through leaflets, protests, vigils, and other types of demonstrations. This presents a teachable moment for educators. Students have a right to free speech, and one of education's fundamental goals is to encourage active participation in our democracy. We need to honor this urge to take action. Teachers can help students to think through their purposes and how to take action appropriately, constructively, respectfully, and in ways that encourage ongoing dialogue.

In the past, groups with differing opinions regarding government policies have co-sponsored vigils at which all participants expressed concern, and hope for the safety, of everyone affected by the conflict.

Teachers should encourage students to collaborate with administrators to find an appropriate vehicle for the expression of their views and to ensure administrator awareness. Administrators may require that students who miss classes are counted as absent. By communicating and coordinating, students can look for ways to take action but not compromise their academic standing.

Students have the right to pass out leaflets on school grounds but not in ways that disrupt classes. If the school decides to bring in outside speakers, there is a legal responsibility to provide access for speakers with a range of viewpoints about an issue.

If some form of demonstration is taking place on school grounds, teachers also can help make sure that order is maintained. Afterwards, teachers can discuss with students what happened, how they felt, validate the importance of expressing one's beliefs, and discuss other ways to take constructive action.

For more information about students' first amendment rights and on teaching the first amendment, contact The First Amendment Center.

31. What are goals to keep in mind when talking with students about the current world situation?
This conversation with students will not be a one time occurrence. The war in Iraq will come up over time, even after the war ends. Students need to take time to process their feelings and thoughts. Therefore we will need to think about our long term goals for talking with students.

We would like to suggest six primary goals:
We are talking with students in order to help them understand that they are not alone in their thinking and feelings and to give them a safe place to share and struggle with each other about the issues that come up for them;

We want to help students gain confidence in their ability to understand what is going on around them, to acquire information from a variety of sources, to appreciate divergent perspectives, and to learn about complex issues;

We want to prevent the emergence of stereotyping and prevent the victimization of any group of people;

We want to help students understand the human and environmental consequences of war;

We want to help students explore alternatives to violent responses to civil and international conflicts and learn conflict resolution skills that might enable them to deal more effectively with conflicts both personal and global. We want students to know about adults in all walks of life who work for justice, build community, and resolve conflicts constructively;

We want to encourage students to empower themselves by providing opportunities for students to make a difference.
There are no easy answers to the issues we have raised here. These discussions will be challenging. They call upon us to do our best teaching in the most difficult of circumstances. Yet they are vitally important to the young people in our classroom. They can provide our students with the support, hope, and understanding they need in this difficult time.

32. What can schools, together with families and community, do to help?
Schools can help in a number of important ways. Above all else they can provide a safe, caring, and supportive environment for children to talk with each other about their thoughts and feelings. This helps children understand that they are not alone, and that there are caring adults and other young people who share their concerns. Formally and informally checking-in with students shows we're concerned about them as individuals. Providing a caring network both at home and at school is reassuring to children and supports a normal level of functioning. Sticking to basic routines also helps reassure students that their world hasn't turned upside down.

Secondly, schools can help young people overcome the sense of powerlessness that often arises in this kind of situation. Young people have many questions about violence and conflict in the world. Helping them pursue answers to these questions and helping them learn more about ways they can deal with conflict creatively is empowering to young people. They gain confidence in their ability to understand what is going on around them, to acquire information from a variety of sources, to appreciate divergent perspectives, and to learn about complex issues.

One of the most effective ways to involve young people of all ages in this exploration is to ask them to brainstorm:
What they already know about the issues at hand;
What they think they know but are not sure about;
Any questions they have about it (after prioritizing their questions, the class can make plans for how to research answers); and
What security and insecurity means to them, and how they can help keep each other safe.

Thirdly, schools can actively prevent the emergence of dehumanization, prejudice, stereotyping, and victimization of any group. Adults in young people's lives, at home and at school, can help young people manage their emotions, resolve conflict, and interrupt prejudice. But even more importantly, we can demonstrate ways that children can support each other and respect each other's backgrounds and perspectives. By helping young people understand the human consequences of violence in any form, schools can help them become more sensitive to other people's feelings and points of

Finally, young people's questions about these issues come up over and over again, even after a particular violent event isn't on the news every night. Children process their feelings and thoughts over time. Therefore it is helpful to think about some long term goals. To this end, ESR has developed a sequel to this quide, Responding to Violent Events By Building Community: Action Ideas for Students and Schools. We hope it will help as we all work to build a world of safety and peace.

About Educators for Social Responsibility

Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) is a national non-profit organization that was founded in 1982. Our mission is to make teaching social responsibility a core practice in education so that young people develop the convictions and skills to shape a safe, sustainable, democratic, and just world.

ESR is a national leader in educational reform. Our work spans the fields of social and emotional learning, character education, conflict resolution, diversity education, civic engagement, prevention programming, youth development, and secondary school improvement. We offer comprehensive programs, staff development, consultation, and resources for adults who teach children and young people preschool through high school, in settings including K-12 schools, early childhood centers, and afterschool programs. We also publish high quality resources for anyone involved in the lives of young people including our award-winning Adventures in Peacemaking series and our bestselling Conflict Resolution Education Series. You can learn more about our award-winning resources and programs by visiting us at or by contacting us at 1-800-370-2515.

For more information about workshops and resources addressing conflict resolution, social and emotional learning, character development, peaceable schools, and the appreciation of diversity, please call ESR at 1-800-370-2515, or email us at


This guide, published by Educators for Social Responsibility and written by Sheldon Berman, Sam Diener, Larry Dieringer, and Linda Lantieri, was adapted from Talking About War in the Persian Gulf (1991) by Susan Jones and Sheldon Berman. We thank the following for their contributions in assisting with this version of the guide: Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Sherrie Gammage, Diane Levin, Carol Lieber, Jeff Perkins, Jennifer Selfridge, and the rest of the staff of Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 492-1764.

©Copyright 2003, Educators for Social Responsibility. All rights reserved. Inquiries regarding permission to reprint all or part of this guide should be addressed to: Permissions Editor, Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Please send comments about this guide, or e-mail inquiries about reprinting rights, to:
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