Updated May 8, 2022 - World

How schools teach about a war when kids can see it on TikTok

Illustration of a composition school notebook with a camouflage pattern

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The war and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has created a complex challenge in America’s classrooms: How do we teach it?

Why it matters: There’s no avoiding it. The war is on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms kids frequent. And how teachers and parents talk with students about global events like this one shapes their views of the world.

  • “I’ve been sprinkling it in almost every day,” says Sari Beth Rosenberg, who teaches high school history in New York City. “When kids learn about World War II, it’s in documentary footage. Seeing this stuff adds a more human element and sensitizes them to what war really means.”

What's happening: Kids — from elementary to high school — are encountering images and videos from the war on television and social media. And they have questions.

When it comes to younger kids, teachers and parents should explain the war and answer questions in clear and simple terms, says Dawn Huebner, a child psychologist in New Hampshire. Start by asking kids what they've already seen and heard and go from there.

  • "Explain it in a way that a child can relate to," she says. "Talk about bullying, or someone trying to take something that isn't theirs."
  • But it's important not to oversimplify. Educators and parents should help kids steer clear of generalizations. Tell them that individuals — like President Vladimir Putin — are perpetrating the violence, and not the Russian people, Huebner says.
  • It's also key to assure young kids that while we care about what's happening in the world, we're personally safe and far from danger, she notes.

Middle and high schoolers are old enough to learn about the war in their classrooms. “It’s such a mistake to get rigid in your curriculum to the point where you don’t address the elephant in the room,” says Rosenberg.

  • Rosenberg says she encourages kids to have open discussions about current events and connect the situation in Ukraine to other conflicts they've learned about, like the World Wars and the Cold War.
  • She has also compared the vandalism of Russian businesses to anti-German sentiment in the U.S. in the mid-20th century.
  • "The war in Ukraine added some complexity to things that started to feel like stale lessons," she says.

The bottom line: The biggest mistake is to ignore questions about the war, experts tell Axios. "Kids, left alone, can misinterpret so much," Mary Alvord, a child psychologist in Maryland, says.

  • This is a chance to teach all kids about empathy and resilience, says Alvord. "Even little kids can bake cookies and sell them at a bake sale that benefits the people of Ukraine." And that can be a critical practical lesson.
  • When they get older, “teaching the war is empowering kids to realize that they too can study and interpret history and come up with new ways of looking at it and connecting it,” says Rosenberg.
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