How to talk to pupils about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Share this guidance with your staff to give them confidence when talking to pupils of all ages about the war between Russia and Ukraine. Find out how to avoid racist and bullying incidents related to the events, and know how to support pupils with higher levels of anxiety.
Anxiety is rooted in the unknown. Help pupils with their worries by having open conversations and giving them facts and practical steps about what they can do.
Tips for talking to pupils about the conflict
Start by finding out what pupils know already
Use open-ended questions to allow them to tell you what they think. See page 7 of the resource 'worrying about war' for examples of questions to ask (you'll find the resource at the bottom of the page.)
Tackle the news head-on and talk about it openly and calmly
Use real words and don’t shy away from the truth. Be prepared to explain and define keywords they might be hearing to help them make sense of what's going on. For example, words like invasion, missiles, sanctions, refugees etc. Use age-appropriate material such as this Newsround resource, which includes definitions.
Stick to the facts
But don’t report everything you hear. For example, be careful about reporting speculation around nuclear warfare. Reassure them that the chance of 'World War III' breaking out is highly unlikely.
Read more about how to help students talk about the news.
Staff don't need to worry about breaching impartiality by disagreeing with events in Ukraine
They can use discussions with pupils to highlight what the Russian government says and why their reasons for aggression are not fair or democratic.
Educate pupils about reliable sources of information
Explain how some stories on social media may be based on rumours or inaccurate information. Use the following resources in class to help with this:
- Younger pupils: Newsround video on spotting fake news about the crisis in Ukraine
- Key Stage (KS) 2 to KS3: lesson plan on conspiracy theories from Educate Against Hate
- KS3 to KS4: resources on how to identify mis- and disinformation and develop critical thinking skills from Educate Against Hate
Encourage pupils to ask questions and share their feelings
Remember, it’s OK not to have all the answers. Explain that you’ll tell them when you know more. This will be an ongoing discussion.
Allow for repetition, you might have to answer the same thing again. Younger children in particular tend to repeat themselves when they’re feeling uncertain or worried.
Reassure pupils that they’re not the only ones feeling this way and encourage them to share their feelings with an adult they can trust, such as their parent or carer.
Share our parent information and support pack with your parent community so they’re prepared to offer support, too.
Be a role model
Recognise and manage your own worries first. If you notice you’re feeling anxious, take some time to calm down before you talk about the events.
Be open about sharing your feelings with pupils - e.g. I'm also finding the news a bit worrying, so I'm doing X (baking cakes, going on long walks, swimming etc.), which helps me to relax.
Offer reassurance and let pupils know it's normal to be concerned
Explain that we're not at war with Russia and they don’t need to worry about it happening in their neighbourhood. Reassure them they’re safe and that the UK is taking steps to help the people of Ukraine - see the final section of this article for positive action your pupils can take.
Encourage pupils to take breaks from listening to or reading the news - overexposure isn’t helpful.
Additional age-appropriate tips for talking to pupils
Trust your instincts with the pupils in your class. Consider what they’ve covered in the curriculum to help guide you. Use the guidance above, which applies to all age groups, in addition to what’s below.
- Some pupils won’t know about what’s going on so it’s important not to overwhelm them with information if you think they remain blissfully unaware. However, social media and conversations happening around them will likely raise worries and questions, so give them a chance to share their worries. If you’re unsure you could:
- Ask their parents before talking about this topic
- Ask an open question in class about their worries, such as ‘Do you have any worries this week? What are they?’ - and if events in Ukraine come up you can address them
- Encourage pupils to read books about worries and how to deal with them, and to apply this to their concerns about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine
- Offer more detail with your KS2 pupils. They'll have the language and some understanding about conflict from curriculum subjects, so will understand more about what’s going on and likely want more information
- Watch videos on Newsround about the events and then have a discussion altogether
- Find more ideas in our article on how to adapt your curriculum in light of the events
KS3 and KS4 pupils
- Let older pupils discuss the issues in an open way. Ask them about their opinions and guide a discussion
- Use this as an opportunity to delve deeper into other related topics. For example, talk about Europe’s dependence on oil and gas, some of which comes from Russia, and how sanctions are affecting this
- Find more suggestions in our other article on how to adapt your curriculum in light of the events
Tackling related racism and bullying
Listen out for how pupils frame events, and reset expectations if needed
This is particularly important for staff such as midday supervisors. They're likely to witness interactions between pupils, based on what they’ve learned in lessons and from the news, outside the classroom. Allow staff to feed back on their observations after break and lunchtimes.
If particular misconceptions come up often, such as pupils generalising that all Russians are bad and want a war, encourage teaching staff to take time at the end of the day to address this. Use examples to help reframe misconceptions, for example:
- Explain that the decision to invade Ukraine was made by the Russian government and its leader, Vladimir Putin, not the Russian people. People don't always agree with the things their governments do
- Explain that the vast majority of the people that live in Russia:
- Want peace with Ukraine, they don’t want war
- Enjoy living in their country, much like you and I
- Speak about the Russian people who have protested in Russia against the war. Explain how many of them have been arrested and risked their lives doing this because their country doesn’t allow its people the freedom to protest peacefully if it goes against government decisions. This is in contrast to the British values we have in our country
- Remind pupils it’s not OK to say 'I don’t like Russia/Russians' but instead, encourage pupils to think about this in terms of 'I don't like what the Russian army is doing'
Encourage staff and pupils to talk about bullying or racist incidents they've seen in school or in the media
- Highlight the reports that people of colour have been harassed at the borders as they try to flee
- Take the opportunity to talk about some of the harmful experiences Roma people have had, and continue to have, in central and eastern Europe
Get staff to address this head on as they would do with any other form of discrimination or racism.
Set ground rules for discussions
For example, remind pupils that:
- We treat everyone with respect
- We listen to one another
- We share views
- We analyse views to understand how they've come about
- It's OK to have different views. We don't have to agree with each other to treat each other with respect
Run a lesson to encourage your pupils to think critically about:
- Stereotypes and prejudice
- Media sensationalism
Use these existing education packs and resources from Show Racism the Red Card. The resource 'Recognising and responding to racism and racial stereotyping' at the bottom of the page is particularly useful for this.
For younger pupils: play the game 'whispers down the line' to show how rumours come about. (This game is also known as 'Chinese whispers', but avoid using this name for obvious reasons.)
Be aware of and support children with higher levels of anxiety
Some of your pupils might be particularly vulnerable to anxiety, for example those pupils:
- With existing phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Who have experienced trauma or loss
- With relatives in the regions - e.g. Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, neighbouring countries in eastern/central Europe
- Who have relatives in the armed services
For these pupils:
- Get them to do activities such as counting, ordering and sorting tasks, which can help with heightened levels of anxiety
- Encourage them to use relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing
- Help them stick to routines they know
- Give them plenty of warning that you’re going to discuss some of the events unfolding in Ukraine, and that this might trigger their anxiety. Share classroom resources with them ahead of time, or, if appropriate, let them know they can leave the classroom if they want to
- Detect any obsessive or compulsive behaviours early and intervene before they become entrenched patterns of thinking. Do this by challenging unhelpful thoughts and assumptions
- Frame worries as situation-specific by relating them to the current news, which is temporary and rare. Encourage staff to go to your pastoral lead, SENCO or DSL for more guidance with this
Look out for each other
Tell your class that if anyone is feeling anxious about the discussions you’re having, they can come to you after class.
Encourage pupils to check in on one another too - to ask how they’re feeling, how they’re sleeping and if they’re having bad dreams.
Know where your pupils can go to for more help
- Childline - a confidential telephone counselling service for any child with a problem
- The Mix - a free confidential telephone helpline and online service that aims to find young people the best help, whatever the problem
Organise an aid package to send to Ukraine
Encourage pupils to engage in positive activities where they can feel helpful about the situation.
For example, research local groups that are organising aid packages and contribute to these with your pupils.
Alternatively, take a look at this article, which includes different ways you can help.
Gulshan Kayembe is an independent consultant who has experience of inspecting schools. As a consultant, she provides mentoring for senior leaders and has worked as an external adviser on headteachers’ performance management.
Thanks as well to Catrin Harley from Lincolnshire Psychology Services for her advice.