Russia's invasion of Ukraine: how to adapt your curriculum
Pupils will understandably have questions and concerns as events unfold between Russia and Ukraine. Find advice and download our subject-specific discussion guides to help you make space for these important conversations in your curriculum.
- Keep pupils and staff calm and informed
- Reassure pupils at the beginning of the day or lesson
- Create a 'worry box' system to keep lessons on track
- Support pupils affected by the crisis
- Equip staff to adapt their curriculum with our subject-specific guides
- Secondary schools: prepare for this topic to come up in other subjects
Keep pupils and staff calm and informed
Help to minimise panic among pupils
Share this guidance with your staff to help them support pupils to understand and deal with their worries about the invasion.
Boost teachers’ confidence in tackling the issue
Hugh Richards, head of history at Huntington School in York, has created a lesson plan about the invasion which he has been updating as the situation unfolds. You can access it via this Twitter thread and adapt it to suit your school’s context.
It contains links to resources to help you keep staff up to date with the situation as it evolves.
Share these with staff at briefings, along with our advice on how to talk to pupils about what’s going on (linked to above).
- To stick to the facts
- Not to sensationalise events, as this could cause unnecessary panic among pupils
- That they are a trusted voice of authority among pupils, and can open up these discussions in a calm space away from visual media
- That, just like with the coronavirus pandemic, you’re relying on them to maintain a normal situation during an abnormal time, and that you’re confident in their ability to do that
Encourage staff to listen out for common themes and misconceptions
Set up a channel of communication through which teachers and teaching assistants can feed back on their observations throughout the day. If a particular worry or concerning behaviour comes up often, encourage teaching staff to take some time at the end of the day to:
- Address this theme
- Dispel any myths or concerns about it
- Remind pupils how to behave kindly towards each other
This will help to reassure pupils before they leave school.
Reassure pupils at the beginning of the day or lesson
Decide when is the right time to support the most pupils
Depending on pupils’ schedules, you may find these conversations work best for your school during form time or at the start of a specific lesson, for example history, geography or PSHE.
Bear in mind that at Key Stage (KS) 4, some pupils will no longer study some of these subjects and may feel left out of discussions that their peers participate in. In this case, create space for these conversations in form time at the beginning of the day.
Share age-appropriate news footage to influence how pupils stay up to date
Pupils will catch snippets of news outside of school from social media and news channels that are designed for adults. These are likely to contain images and videos that cause them to arrive feeling unsettled, particularly if they don’t understand all of the surrounding context.
To help counter this, you could show them age-appropriate news from sources such as:
When sharing images, spare pupils any unnecessary distress by avoiding images that may provoke a very emotional response, such as:
- Close-ups of people in upsetting situations
- Photos and videos of destruction
Instead, consider using zoomed-out images to demonstrate objective discussion points such as:
- The traffic leaving Kyiv
- Queues at borders
- People queuing to send donations to Poland for Ukraine's refugees
Invite pupils to raise questions at a designated time in the lesson
Hugh starts the lesson (linked to above) by asking pupils what they want to know and writing these questions on the board, then ticking these off as they come up in conversation.
Use this as an opportunity to discuss and discount any terms that you as a class don’t feel comfortable using, and come up with more appropriate alternatives.
Be mindful not to associate any negative or aggressive terms with all Russian people, so as to sensitively support all pupils and discourage bullying.
Create a 'worry box' system to keep lessons on track
While staff can encourage pupils to raise their questions and concerns in designated lessons, it’s likely that these worries will be on their minds at other points throughout the day.
Remember that children will find it harder than adults to regulate their consumption of social media, and some may develop an obsession with finding out information about the situation.
If they raise questions about it outside of topic-specific lessons, get staff to reassure them that this is a normal way for our brains to behave when we’re worried about something.
However, bear in mind that this topic is likely to derail a lesson. If teachers are in the middle of an activity that they would prefer not to interrupt, get them to:
- Thank the pupil for raising the question or concern
- Explain that their concern is very important but the class is in the middle of an activity right now
- For younger pupils: ask them to write it down (or write it down for them) on:
- A post-it, to stick on a designated 'worry wall'
- A piece of paper, to fold up and put in a 'worry box'
- A mini whiteboard
- For older pupils: ask them to write it on the whiteboard
- Reassure them that they’ll come back to it later
- Follow up on their promise by addressing it at the end of the lesson
Some pupils may need to unload into the worry box or on to the whiteboard at the beginning of each day. Get staff to establish a system with these pupils so they know when their teacher will have time to address their concerns with them.
Secondary schools: remind pupils where they can seek subject-specific support
Older pupils may ask more complex questions that some teachers don’t feel equipped to answer, particularly if they’re not subject experts. It’s OK to be honest about this and model that we all have gaps in our understanding.
Ask your heads of subjects such as history and geography to input into your staff briefing, for example to:
- Provide a specific time and place where they’d be happy for pupils to approach them outside of lessons with questions and concerns (this is particularly important for pupils who aren’t studying these subjects at KS4)
- Share any resources they feel may help to boost other teachers’ confidence in responding to these questions
Support pupils affected by the crisis
Identify which pupils may be at an increased risk of traumatisation
The majority of pupils are likely to find this subject matter worrying or upsetting. Certain pupils may feel particularly affected, including those who:
- Are of Ukrainian or Russian descent
- Have family or friends in Ukraine or Russia
- Have family or friends in the armed forces or with other ties to the military
- Are from a family that has had to flee conflict in its own country - note that this might not be immediately obvious to some teachers, particularly if the pupil has had to change their surname
Make sure that all staff are aware of which pupils may fall into these categories. Encourage pupils and families to let their teacher know if they would find discussions on this topic too distressing, so you can make sure they’re on everyone’s radar too.
For help with communicating with parents about what you're doing in school and how they can support their children, use our parent information and support pack.
Designate a safe space in the school to which these pupils can withdraw
This could be:
- The library
- Another classroom
- A quiet space with a teaching assistant
If teachers are planning to discuss these events with pupils, get them to:
- Acknowledge that the situation is upsetting as well as important to discuss
- Give all pupils a heads up about what’s about to be discussed, including any resources they plan to use
- Ask if, while the classroom will be a safe space for discussion, anyone would prefer to go to the designated safe space outside the classroom during the conversation
Equip staff to adapt their curriculum with our subject-specific guides
Think of these guides as a 'starter for 10' to help inform teachers' planning. They don't have to revise their entire curriculum, but we've included some examples of how they might address relevant themes in a way that will help pupils feel supported and safe.
We've indicated where some discussion topics and activities may be more suitable for older or younger pupils. You and your teachers are best placed to decide how certain topics might land with their classes.
The guides also include resources to support teaching and increase teachers' confidence in discussing these issues.
Geography (all phases)
This guide covers topics including:
- Physical geography
- Human geography, such as migration
PSHE (all phases)
This guide covers topics including:
- Conflict resolution
- Online safety and social media resilience
- British values, such as democracy
Note: the suggestions in this guide encompass themes that might come under PSHE, citizenship, or RSE and health education, depending on how your school organises these subjects.
Given the complex historical context surrounding the invasion, we recommend that you:
- Start with the geography and PSHE guides above, to introduce accessible topics to all pupils
- Use this guide to help you go further in your discussions with older pupils
It covers topics including:
- The reliability of sources
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
- Russia's past
For general resources to help you plan your history curriculum around the invasion, see:
- This list of resources put together by the Historical Association
- This Twitter thread compiled by Helen Snelson, PGCE history lead at the University of York
Secondary schools: prepare for this topic to come up in other subjects
Modern foreign languages (MFL): share other European countries’ views on the situation
Fiona Easton, a modern languages teacher, has set up a weekly newsletter for A-level pupils, which she’s adapted to include perspectives from France and Spain.
See if any of the target-language news stories she’s included could help you with discussions in GCSE or A-level MFL classes.
Science: reassure pupils about the facts around Chernobyl
Pupils may be concerned about the connection between Russia, nuclear power and “another Chernobyl”. Get your science department to iron out the facts, including that the Chernobyl disaster was an accident.
Our thanks to the following for their help with this article:
- Anthony Barlow is the principal lecturer in early years and primary geography education at the University of Roehampton. He’s the co-author of Mastering Primary Geography, the author of Rising Stars Geography for Key Stage 1 and a member of the Geographical Association
- John Cannell is the primary curriculum lead at the Geographical Association. He has led on a wide range of projects and CPD involving curriculum development and inclusivity, and has extensive teaching experience
- Hugh Richards is the curriculum lead for history at Huntington School in York
- Kristian Shanks is the curriculum lead for history at Sherburn High School in Leeds
- Helen Snelson is the PGCE history lead at the University of York and a fellow of the Historical Association
- Paula Kitching is an education consultant and fellow of the Historical Association
- Fiona Easton is a French and Spanish teacher who has set up a weekly newsletter sharing links to target language French and Spanish news stories relating to A level topics
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