Talking to Students About Charlottesville Violence and Racism

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia after one of the largest white nationalist rallies in recent years, our kids are confused and scared. They have more questions than ever, and parents and educators who are experiencing their own shock and disbelief are struggling to find the right words to offer. It’s a difficult topic, but NEA President Lily Eskelsen García encourages families and educators to find a way to confront the issue.

“Do not shy away from talking about this terrible topic with the young, I beg you. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than a conversation on race. But do it, because how we feel about race; how we react to racism informs how we feel about and react to all other forms of bias and prejudice. Children of all races, religions, all gender attractions and gender identities, of all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions and wonder and think and be angry and be comforted,”Eskelsen García writes in her blog, Lily’s Blackboard. “It’s not important that we, as adults, know all the answers. It’s important that we let them ask all the questions and explore the complexity of our human family. And it’s important that children know that there is right and there is wrong.

Virginia Education Association and NEA Speak Out Against Racism and Violence

Jim Livingston, president of the 50,000 member Virginia Education Association, joined NEA’s Eskelsen García to condemn the racists and to mourn with the community and families.

“The VEA and the NEA stand with members of the Charlottesville community, and we offer our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives on Saturday. Educators bear the wounds collectively. Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, formerly taught in the public schools and was a member of the Greene County Education Association. Karen Cullen, wife of Lt. Jay Cullen, is an elementary teacher and member of the Chesterfield Education Association. We mourn with them, and their families,” said VEA President Jim Livingston and Eskelsen García in a joint statement.

“We know that children of all ages follow events such as those that occurred Saturday and have questions; some may feel traumatized. Members of the VEA and NEA have resources to assist teachers and community members, and we stand ready to offer any educational or crisis management assistance.”

The National Association of School Psychologists also offers the following tips for talking to your students about racial violence and other national tragedies:

Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

Create time to listen and be available to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient. Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.

Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

  • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
  • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
  • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Review school safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional right away if you are at all concerned.

Limit media exposure. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Monitor what kids are viewing online and how they are consuming information about the event through social media. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children. Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.

Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.

A lot of these tips can also be applied to educators — to take proper care of their students, they must first take care of themselves.

More information and resources to help address racism and bias