We can’t shield children from bad news, and nor should we try
Talk to your Pupils about the News
Worrying NSPCC figures released this week showed a 35% increase in children calling Childline due to anxiety about world affairs. Distressing though this is, I am not surprised.
Why not? Firstly, because children overhear so much: Brexit, terrorism, climate change. Whether we realise it or not, they take everything on board. However, unlike adults, children aren’t able to contextualise what they hear. Another problem is irresponsible journalism. Adults understand that newspapers and broadcasters sensationalise to boost sales and viewership, but children don’t – if a child reads a headline saying: ‘Donald Trump: World War 3’ they will take it literally!
Established in 2006, First News – now the UK’s widest read children’s publication –was initially met with ridicule. Naysayers scoffed: ‘Children don’t care about the news!’ However, today’s 2.5 million weekly readers suggest otherwise. It’s the big stuff that grabs attention too, not just sport or celebrity gossip. When a large story breaks – such as the terrorist attacks in Paris – First News readership increases. To me, this highlights the need to talk more openly about world affairs.
How can we take this into schools? Education is not just about academia. It is about giving children a holistic understanding of current affairs. Hard facts, discussing the news – these things will alleviate many of the anxieties children currently face. Giving them a voice empowers them.
I think some teachers are reluctant to tackle sensitive topics head-on, either because they don’t know where to start, or perhaps because they fear parental backlash. These are both legitimate concerns, but they won’t solve the problem.
So what can teachers do? First, I would say, accept that children have access to news. Some well-meaning teachers or parents may wish to protect children from topics such as terrorism or war, but this is misguided. Technology has made the world a smaller place. Whether we realise it or not, children are exposed to current affairs, but without discussion they’re left to reconstruct the full picture from incomplete titbits: playground gossip, newspaper headlines and snippets from radio or online.
There are many online resources to help teachers here, including lesson plans and videos. The main aim is to desensationalise. First News will be shocking when we need to be (such as highlighting the dangers of using mobile phones on busy roads) but we are mindful not to use unnecessarily graphic pictures or details. There is much to be said for sensitivity around delicate topics like violence or racism, but no news is off limits, so long as it is sensitively dealt with.
Teachers can adopt this approach in classrooms too, using plain, direct language. They can also embed the news across the curriculum. Tutor time is a good place to start. Citizenship lessons, for example, provide a good opportunity to discuss the refugee crisis. If a plane crashes, use maths to demonstrate the statistical chances of actually being involved in one. This will contextualise the incident, reassuring children that it is unlikely to happen to them. Essentially, bringing the real world into the classroom makes learning and current affairs more engaging.
What happens if we don’t act? Presumably, the anxiety problem will worsen. Children are 27% of the world’s people, but they are 100% of the future – what we want is a generation of kids who are well informed and become active global citizens. But for the world to become a better place, the next generation needs to be better informed than the current one.
So give children the opportunity to talk. Tell them the truth. Be open with them. Listen to them and answer their questions honestly. If we avoid tough topics, chances are children will be worrying about them anyway. And at the end of the day, the truth really isn’t that scary.
The Telegraph, 4 November 2016