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Talking with Students About Shocking or Disturbing News

Age-based tips and lessons to help students process upsetting events.

Jeff Knutson | January 27, 2021

In our 24/7 breaking news world, there seems to be a new crisis every day. As news outlets compete for clicks, all of us -- including kids -- are immersed in more headlines than ever before. Unless you teach current events or social studies, most of the day's news probably won't make it into your classroom. But certain news events are just too big to ignore. When this happens, a lot of teachers ask themselves: How should I address this with my students? And, should I address this at all?

First, decide whether you should have a conversation.

For many teachers, facilitating a conversation about shocking, disturbing, or otherwise controversial news can be fraught. Before considering how to approach a so-called "day after" discussion with students, consider whether it's appropriate or necessary, as well as considering your own comfort level with having this type of conversation in your classroom. That said, the most important consideration may be whether your students are genuinely upset or confused by the news, or need a space to process what's going on.

Note that your school or district may already have policies or resources in place to guide you in these situations. If so, you should, of course, take these into consideration. Also consider other important factors, like the nature of the event, your students' ages, and the expectations and culture of your school and community. No matter what, if any students come to class upset or seem like they need to talk, consider ways to get them the support they need, whether that's a classroom discussion or more individualized support, from either school or home.

Tips on addressing news and current events in your classroom

Kids often see and hear more of the news than we realize, whether it's at home, from friends, or on social media. Shocking or disturbing stories could be about a natural disaster, a mass shooting, racist violence, political strife, or even wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic.

From elementary school through high school, most kids don't have the news and media literacy skills to fully understand what's happening in the world. While older teens are better at understanding current events, even they face challenges in sifting fact from opinion or weeding out misinformation. No matter their age, threatening or upsetting news can affect kids emotionally. The news can make some kids feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty -- feelings that can last long after the event is over. In many cases, talking about these feelings, along with clearing up any misconceptions about the news, can help. Use these tips and resources as a guide:

  • Be proactive. When discussing an upsetting or potentially controversial topic, it's best if you've done some classroom community-building work specific to discussing challenging topics ahead of time. At the very least, be prepared to set some basic ground rules to help students keep the conversation civil, equitable, and constructive. If you're looking for help in this area, Facing History and Ourselves has an excellent toolkit for teachers (see our list of helpful links below).
  • Consider your own reactions. Since you're their teacher, students will look to the way you handle shocking news to guide their own reactions. Show your students that you approach the news -- even disturbing news -- thoughtfully and with critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. If you stay calm and rational, your students are more likely to do the same.
  • Consider the diversity of backgrounds among your students. Depending on the news, different kids may react and respond differently to what they're seeing and hearing, especially given differences in family background, situation, and culture. Be mindful of your own potential biases, and remember that students may not interpret events the way we assume they would. Remind students that your classroom is an inclusive space for all voices, but also don't pressure anyone to talk unless they're comfortable doing so.
  • Listen. Let students know that your classroom is a safe space to share and process what they're feeling, and that you're there to listen. Along the way, you can model how to approach big, complex issues in the news by asking good questions and seeking factual information. It may be necessary to address any misconceptions students have about events. In the case of news that's still breaking, it's important to encourage patience. Remind students that social media can be rife with misinformation, and that even established media outlets may run with unverified reports.
  • Encourage positive action. Disturbing news can sometimes leave kids feeling upset or helpless. Depending on the issue and kids' ages, consider asking students how they might like to help others, and offer guidance toward resources they can use to take action toward positive change. Whether it's making donations to those in need, or writing postcards to share their opinions with elected officials, remind kids that they can indeed make a positive difference in the world.

Age-based tips and resources for news and media literacy

Use the age-specific advice below as a guide, along with recommended news and media literacy lessons from our free Digital Citizenship curriculum.

Pre-K-2nd grade

Reassure kids that they're safe. Many kids this age can have misconceptions about their own safety. If they see something scary happening far away, or even something imaginary, they might still think that they're in danger. Images of disturbing news can be downright frightening. Avoid showing images or video of dramatic news events in class.

If students have questions, give them space to talk. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids. In the event that kids are experiencing threats to their safety firsthand, for example, the effects of violence, racism, or a natural disaster, recounting the news could trigger extra fear. In this case, it might be good to share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe (sticking together, being with an adult, keeping away from any emergency activity).

Overall, while it might be necessary to address a major news event, don't belabor the discussion for too long. Depending on the situation, kids may be ready to move on with their day before we realize.

Helpful digital citizenship lessons for pre-K-2nd grade:

  • Media Balance Is Important: Help kids think about finding a healthy balance between media time and offline activities.
  • Pause & Think Online: Use this song and lesson to help kids consider what's safe to view when they're online.

3rd-5th grade

Consider the variety in your students' maturity and temperament. Some kids will be able to handle a discussion about threatening events, others less so. Avoid in-class exposure to images or video of upsetting news events, which could make dangers seem greater, more prevalent, or closer to home. Also, be mindful that some kids may be experiencing threats to their safety firsthand, for example, the effects of violence, racism, or a natural disaster. Remember that certain events might feel closer to home for some kids more than others.

Create a space for conversation and kids' questions, but be ready to ask them what they know (or think they know) first. They're likely to need help thinking through potential misconceptions about what's happened -- or they may bring an important perspective that needs your validation and support. In many cases, kids may need reminders to not jump to conclusions because not all of the facts may be available yet.

Some situations could involve prejudice, bias, or civil or religious strife -- be prepared to explain some of these concepts in basic terms. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids this age will take what you say to the bank. As a teacher, you might not have an answer to every question, and that’s OK. Model good critical thinking, including the importance of being curious and seeking out quality, fact-based information.

Helpful digital citizenship lessons for 3rd-5th grade:

  • Is Seeing Believing?: Help kids explore the ins and outs of digitally altered images and videos online.
  • Reading News Online: Use this foundational news literacy lesson to explore the elements of an online news article.

6th-8th grade

Create a space for conversation if kids want or need it. But be ready to ask them what they know (or think they know) first, and help kids think through any potential misconceptions about what's happened -- and be prepared to validate or support an important perspective they may bring to the table. In many cases, kids will need reminders that not all the facts may be available yet, and to not jump to conclusions.

Some situations may involve prejudice, bias, or civil or religious strife, so be prepared to explain what these concepts mean in terms your students will understand. Show kids what curiosity and good critical thinking look like. For teachers, it's OK to not have all the answers as long as we model that we're curious and actively seeking out factual information.

It's OK to talk about, and even show, some news coverage, but consider filtering any images or video that could be especially disturbing to students. Critical discussion about the nature of the news coverage itself could be valuable. Consider talking about the ways that news outlets' desire for clicks or viewership might affect their editorial and reporting decisions.

Helpful digital citizenship lessons for 6th-8th grade:

  • Finding Credible News: Help students consider how to find factual news and information online.
  • This Just In!: Use this lesson to help students think critically about the breaking news they see.

9th-12th grade

Check in and give teens a space to share. If the news has made students concerned for their own safety, or if they're aware that their own lives could be affected by violence, help them address these concerns without dismissing them or minimizing them. Be mindful of how events in the news may trigger different emotions and reactions from different students, especially for those who may have experienced violence in the past.

Many examples of shocking or disturbing news can become politicized. If you open up a space for discussion, be ready for at least some of your students to be passionate, and possibly even want to debate related issues. As mentioned above, it's best if you've already done some of the necessary community building before diving into a discussion that could get heated. In any case, be sure to set some ground rules to ensure that the conversation is civil, equitable, and constructive.

Ask your students to share what they've already learned about the situation and where they’ve found their news (very often from social media), and help them think critically about their sources for breaking news and information. Encourage students to break out of their own filter bubbles to seek out quality, fact-based information before drawing any conclusions.

Helpful digital citizenship lessons for 9th-12th grade:

  • Hoaxes and Fakes: Learn about identifying fake images, videos, and other synthetic media online.
  • Challenging Confirmation Bias: Help students learn to recognize their own biases when viewing news or searching for information online.
  • Clicks for Cash: Help students consider how clickbait headlines affect how we read and interpret news.
  • Filter Bubble Trouble: Show students the ways that social media algorithms feed us what we want to see.
  • We Are Civil Communicators: Teach students to keep disagreements civil so everyone's ideas can be heard.

Additional resources for talking with students about the news

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.