Every teacher knows that a typical school day is never just about the curriculum. Of course, that is our primary responsibility, but most of the time our students are far more interested in talking about our favorite Taylor Swift song or what kind of dog we have than the lesson. And this isn’t just a stalling technique. Kids genuinely like to get to know their teachers on a more personal level–which is fine because building a rapport with our students makes for a more positive classroom environment. But what about when students want to talk about events and issues that aren’t just personal? What if they’re global and terrifying and complicated and deeply, deeply sad, like our students’ fears?

What about when students want to talk about what’s happening in the Middle East? Because the attacks on Israel on October 7 were so horrific, and the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas has been so brutal, it’s on the hearts and minds of a lot of Americans–even kids. So, what should teachers do when our students inevitably want to discuss what’s going on?

While there’s no simple solution for talking to kids about difficult topics, here are a few tips.

1. Keep your opinions to yourself.

Sometimes when teachers feel strongly about a particular issue–an issue that they view is black and white, right vs. wrong–they feel it is their duty to share their views with their students. After all, part of educating children is helping them become caring and just citizens. That means teaching our students not to lie or cheat. It means teaching them to be responsible and holding them accountable if they make a mistake. It also means teaching lessons on kindness and inclusion. But when it comes to issues that involve a family’s deeply held religious, political, or moral views, it is not a teacher’s place to usurp parental guidance or authority–even if we find the position of our students (or their parents) morally problematic.

A good litmus test for determining which moral issues to discuss with your students and where to offer guidance is to ask yourself, “If my child’s teacher had a belief that was the opposite of my own, would I want her to share her beliefs with my kid?” If the answer is no, it’s best not to go there. This doesn’t mean teachers have to go to great lengths to hide their religion or political party–these are not dirty little secrets. But a teacher should never (even subtly) try to convince a student to “come over to her side” on a personal issue.

2. Try to calm their fears.

The news coming out of the Middle East right now is so disturbing that it might feel like there’s nothing you can do to alleviate the kids’ anxiety (or yours.) Sometimes simply just being there for your students and listening is enough to help them cope.

It’s not possible to minimize what’s been happening or the massive suffering and loss of life that has ensued. But encourage your students to avoid spending too much time (if any) watching the news or reading social media posts and internet articles about what’s happening. Humans are not meant to take in all of the world’s suffering and injustices in steady diet of 30-second sound bytes. Explain to your students that they can care about what’s happening in the Middle East without being constantly reminded of what’s happening. Encourage them to unplug.

3. Share a little bit about your own childhood fears.

Did you grow up during the Cold War? During the War in Iraq? During the housing crisis of the mid-2000s? Post 911? Most people have grown up with some sort of shadow hanging over their childhood–whether it was the threat of nuclear armageddon, anxiety about losing their home, or the fear of a terrorist attack. Let your students know that fear is an unfortunate but common part of growing up, and encourage them to talk to a trusted adult or the school counselor if their fears become overwhelming. Be sure they know that it’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to ask for help.

4. Keep class discussions to a minimum.

While it’s important for kids to know that they can talk to you (or the school counselor), a whole class discussion about what is happening could turn into a heated argument.

5. Help them feel empowered.

While there is probably nothing our students can do to alleviate suffering in the Middle East, reminding them that they can make a difference in their own community can often help students feel less helpless. Talk to them about their sphere of influence and help find ways they can make the world a better place within that sphere. Challenge your students to look for ways to respect and include their classmates. Encourage them to find a local charity where they can volunteer. Or even come up with a class project to serve your community. Kids not only need to see that there is still good in the world, they need to be a part of that good.

It is hard to teach children who are afraid, and it’s frustrating when our students come to us for answers and we can’t give them–either because we don’t know or because it’s not our place. In a time like this, maybe the best we can do is listen to our kids’ fears and then help them find ways to make the world better for those around them.

How to Address Your Students' Fears About World Events