We live in a world that is overwhelming for many young people and this can often lead to students asking difficult questions. It is our job as education professionals to educate and nurture students interests, but this can sometimes mean approaching areas of class discussion that are hard to talk about in a balanced and objective way. With facilitated discussion techniques, you can begin to set some ground rules for discussing controversial issues in class.

Often students will hear about current affairs at home, with peers, or in the media and it is confusing for them to grasp. This is made especially difficult with the rise in ‘fake news’ on social media. After hearing about terrorist attacks in the news, or disasters like Grenfell, for instance, students need to have conversations that will give them reassurance.

In a classroom of pupils from diverse backgrounds, approaching issues such as religion, racism and sexuality can be a thin line to walk.

In a classroom of pupils from diverse backgrounds, approaching issues such as religion, racism and sexuality can be a thin line to walk. While it is very important that young people are given the opportunity to discuss these topics, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain a balanced, open discussion. Giving students the right to freely voice their views presents the danger of prejudiced or hurtful comments being made in class discussion. Remember that these students may simply be repeating what they’ve heard at home and don’t understand the full effect of their words on others.

Mental health is another topic that is becoming more widely discussed in the media. After Netflix released the series 13 Reasons Why, for example, teachers have reported more students bringing up questions about mental illness and suicide. This has led to schools having to inform teachers on how best to approach these issues in class. It may also be helpful to consider any students with special needs or social/ emotional issues that may have difficulty discussing certain topics. For example, students with autism may really benefit from advance warnings or the help of a teaching assistant who can monitor and anticipate any potential anxiety triggers.

In having these conversations, we are allowing young people to better understand their world

It is in opening up a conversation and through being approachable and non-judgemental that we can give students the courage to seek advice at school and get the help they need. In having these conversations in a safe school environment, we are allowing young people to better understand their world.

Here’s 5 things you can do when teaching sensitive topics with your class:

1) Be Prepared

It is good to identify potential topics on your curriculum that some students may find upsetting so that you can prepare in advance. In particular, subjects like Citizenship cover a wide range of topics that touch on sensitive issues. If you are worried about how some students might be affected by certain issues, it can sometimes be a good idea to let parents know of the discussion topics beforehand. This can also mean that parents have the chance to chat about these things at home, especially in cases where a child may not feel comfortable speaking up in class.

2) Create a Safe Space

The classroom should be an open and non-judgemental space where everyone is given a voice. Putting together an anonymous question box can be a good way of encouraging pupils to ask embarrassing questions without facing judgement from their peers. It may also be a good idea to allow pupils the opportunity to leave the room without explanation or time to speak with you confidentially if they wish.

3) Create Boundaries

Be clear from the start that everyone has the right to an opinion but that hurtful or offensive comments will not be tolerated. Make it clear that everyone should be given a voice without judgement but that students need to think about how their words will affect those around them.

4) Keep Your Personal Views to Yourself

This is much easier said than done. One of the most important things to do is to create a balance of views with respect and acknowledgement of different arguments. It can be very easy to slip in to the trap of preaching to the class, particularly when talking about politics or current affairs. We are not there to teach them what we believe to be right, but how they can decide what they think is right.

5) Encourage Individual Thought

In some cases, it may not be a good idea to immediately shut down a problematic comment but instead ask them to provide a deeper explanation of their thinking. In doing this you are encouraging them to challenge what they think and understand why, or if, they really believe what they have said. Lastly, give them the tools to do their own research and praise those who question what they hear. In encouraging individual thought, you are offering young people a valuable skill for life.

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