How to: Work with sensitive issues

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In many UNRWA fields of operation children are exposed to violence, conflict, loss and displacement. In these exceptionally difficult circumstances education is of great importance as it brings children a sense of normalcy, hope for the future and an opportunity for developmentally appropriate activities. It is crucial that educators understand this, and schools provide a child-friendly environment that fosters psychosocial well-being, resilience and coping.

How to discuss a crisis with children

Basic principles:

  • Children want and need as much factual information as possible. Give simple answers to their questions, however, without scary details.
  • Tell your students it is ok to feel sad, afraid, confused, angry and guilty. These are normal responses to a very abnormal crisis or tragedy.
  • Emphasize that they are not responsible for the bad things that happened.
  • Initiate group discussions about distressing events that many may have experienced. Even those who have not have experienced events are likely to have heard of them. This will help affected children feel less alone with their worries.
  • Allow students to share their own ideas about what happened so that they can begin to understand the events.
  • Listen carefully to your students' thoughts and fears without being judgmental.
  • Do not ask students to tell their own individual stories in front of the class. Instead you can let students know that you are there for them and ready to listen any time later if they have worries which they would like to share with you confidentially.
  • Emphasize to students that they are safe at school and that everything possible is done to make sure school is a safe space.
  • Emphasize that you care for your students' health and wellbeing.

Content vs context

My Voice-My School purposefully focuses on the topic of quality education as the central idea for the project and video discussions. This topic was chosen not only because of its universal importance but also because it applies equally to all young people. It allows for equitable discussion in a way that a focus on refugees or conflict would not. That is not to say that the context of the classes should be ignored. The education experience of the two classes in the video calls will be different. They will be affected by a range of factors that include the political, social and economic realities in which the respective schools are situated.

Potentially sensitive topics

The context of the video calls cannot be ignored and have the potential to raise sensitive topics, including:

  • Race
  • Politics
  • Torture
  • Faith/religion/belief systemsDeath/bereavement

Education should encourage rather than avoid debate, but should be sensitive to the feelings and opinions of the students in the class. It is your responsibility as the teacher to facilitate a balanced and reasoned discussion. Students may express an opinion that could be considered offensive or controversial to others in the discussion. If you let controversial statements go unchecked, this will close down the class discussion.

Active management

During the My Voice-My School lessons, there are a number of opportunities available to prevent and manage potentially sensitive issues arising.

Lesson 1: Framing the debate

  • Lesson 1 provides the opportunity to frame the debate
  • The focus of this project is quality education
  • The focus of this project is not the political aspects of the conflict in Syria, but its impact on education
  • The focus of this project is not on other political issues in the Middle East or globally

Lesson 2: Creating class guidelines

  • Lesson 2 provides the opportunity for student generated class guidelines for the video calls.Students should consider the context of their partner classroom when creating classroom guidelines.

Lesson 2: Reframing questions

  • At the end of Lesson 2 and during the video calls, there is the opportunity for the teacher to reframe questions to ensure that they do not evoke sensitive responses.
  • Questions might need to be reframed from the personal to the general, eg:
    How has the war in affected you? or
    How does being a Muslim affect your education?

    Could be reframed as:
    How has the war affected education? or
    How can religion affect education?

Lessons 3, 6 & 9: Challenging controversial comments

  • However much preparation is done, some students may still make controversial comments or ask controversial questions.
  • Challenge the comments or questions as soon as they are made.
  • This can most easily be done by steering the conversation back to the topic of education.
  • Useful phrases include:
    I don't think that's the focus for today's discussion.
    That's an inappropriate comment. We'll come back to this after the end of video call.
    You don't need to answer that question.
    Can you think of a more general way of phrasing that question?

Working within school policies

  • Often, students may be unthinking in their comments or questions rather than malicious.But if there is malice, use your school's policies for support or sanctions.

Further resources

Consult school staff with expertise in this area, such as a school counsellor. The following websites also contain further guidance.

Teaching Controversial Issues, Oxfam

Tackling Controversial Issues in the Citizenship Classroom, CDVEC Curriculum Development Unit

Human Rights, Conflict Resolution And Tolerance Toolkit for Teachers, UNRWA

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