Talking about Ukraine in school? Here are eight ways to help young people learn, think and act

Liz Newbon Education, In the news, Youth Participation

Whether it’s helping children to spot misinformation or take action to welcome refugees, there are lots of ways teachers can support learners to think about and respond to the Ukraine crisis, says Liz Newbon of Oxfam GB’s education team

Xenia, 35, from Ukraine and Armel, 38 from Ivory Coast, and their son Gabriel* 3 at the “Tesco” Humanitarian Aid Center for Ukrainian refugees. Przmeyl, Poland.
(Picture: JB Russell / Panos / Oxfam)

By now, children of all ages will be aware of the unfolding devastation and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, whether it’s through social media, conversations in the playground or picking up on the discussion of adults around them. News such as the report that the crisis is creating a child refugee every second will leave many children and young people with questions or feeling anxious. They will be turning to parents, carers and teachers to talk about the stories they see and hear.

Here are eight suggested ways teachers could support young people to respond to and understand this crisis – with signposts to some of the many useful resources being produced by other organisations. We have tried to include a range of ideas for use with different age groups and contexts. Though the advice is aimed at UK teachers, we hope it might prove helpful to educators in other places too.

1. Facilitate conversations and support learners’ well-being

There are several online sources of advice for talking with children and young people about what’s happening in Ukraine and any worries or concerns they may have. And much of this information is relevant for teachers too. These tips from Young Minds and advice from Save the Children are a useful starting point.

Conflict can be a difficult and emotive topic to explore in the classroom. Some learners may have personal connections with conflicts going on in the world  and it is important to be sensitive to this. This helpful resource from the British Red Cross provides advice and suggested activities for using a neutral and impartial approach when discussing conflict with children and young people.

2. Develop understanding of the context in Ukraine

This short resource from The Economist Educational Foundation (Russia: what’s the next move?) could be used with older learners to provide some background context about the current situation between Russia and Ukraine and prompt classroom discussion about what might happen next. BBC Newsround have shared a useful glossary to explain the meaning of some of the words being used in connection with the Ukraine conflict. These cross-curricular ideas and suggested teaching approaches on the Global Dimension website may also be useful.

3. Challenge misinformation – and support better understanding of what pupils see and hear

One important reason for talking with young people about current news events is to combat misinformation. Young people are more likely to access their news through digital and social media, rather than more traditional sources, but may find it difficult to tell whether what they are reading is true. Research by the Commission on Fake News and Critical Literacy in Schools found that only 2% of children and young people in the UK had the critical literacy skills needed to identify whether a news story is real or fake.

So, supporting young people to develop the skills to critically evaluate sources of information is essential. Asking questions is a good first step: What is the source of this article? Who said it? What did they say? Are these facts or opinions? When was it written? See p.15 of Oxfam’s Teaching Controversial Issues guide for a classroom activity to encourage learners to critically analyse the media and discuss issues around ‘fake news’. There are many other resources online to help young people to navigate their newsfeed, for example this lesson plan from The Guardian Foundation or this set of classroom resources from BBC Teach. Older learners could also investigate how news stories are put together for different audiences, including how choices are made about what types of information to include.

4. Explore peace and conflict

Even very young children will have some basic knowledge about the causes and consequences of disagreement, as well as strategies for avoiding, managing and resolving conflict. For most, this will be based on their own experiences at a personal, classroom or family level, though there will be some with first-hand experience of conflict on a larger scale. Picture books are a great way of learning and talking about conflict and its impacts on people, as well as helping children to develop empathy for others. See this book list from lovemybooks for some suggested titles.

This collection of teaching resources from the British Red Cross could be used to explore conflict and its consequences, not just in Ukraine, but in other countries around the world. Oxfam Education offers a resource that could be used to investigate the conflict in Yemen. The Quakers in Britain also have a wide range of resources for teaching about peace and conflict. This blog post by Ellis Brooks, their Peace Education Coordinator, provides advice and ideas for using peace education to help learners make sense of the conflict in Ukraine. Teach Peace from the Peace Education Network includes assemblies, activities, resources, prayers and reflections on peace and peace-making for 5–12 year olds.

5. Engage with controversial issues

Bringing these complicated topics into the classroom may provoke strong, varied and often divided opinions. We believe it’s important to engage with, rather than avoid these controversial issues. Educators have a responsibility to ensure that learners are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views, at the same time making it clear when any views expressed are discriminatory or counter to human rights. Young people need space and opportunities to think critically (see below) and reflect on their own and others’ values and attitudes, and to do so with consideration and respect for others. Suitable for use with all ages from under-5s to post-16s, this Oxfam Education guide for teachers includes strategies, guidance and activities for teaching controversial issues.

6. Strengthen critical thinking skills

There are many complex issues connected with the Ukraine crisis. One difficult area that has prompted much debate is what many see as differences between the reporting of the conflict in Ukraine compared to reporting of conflicts in other countries, leading to coverage that many commentators view as racist and Eurocentric. Others have pointed out disparities in the responses of many countries in the global north to the crisis in Ukraine, as compared to other conflicts and humanitarian emergencies. As the international community rightly scales up efforts to support the people of Ukraine, we cannot overlook ongoing humanitarian crises affecting millions of people in the Horn of Africa, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. The challenges some people of colour have faced in their attempts to escape Ukraine, the difficulties Ukrainians with disabilities have experienced in fleeing home, and the unequal experiences of asylum seekers impacted by conflict in other parts of the world — all of these are reminders of how who you are and where you are in the world, affect the opportunities you have and how you are treated by others.

Exploring these issues with young people is complicated but important. Using philosophical enquiry is one way to develop critical, creative and collaborative thinking skills about complex topics. An opinion continuum or agreement line could be used to share viewpoints and values in the classroom (see p. 16 of Oxfam’s Global Citizenship in the Classroom – A guide for teachers). This simple activity encourages young people to think through their position on two opposing views and mark this on an imaginary line. Are some conflicts more important than others? Is conflict ever justified? Are all refugees treated equally?

Older learners could investigate media coverage of the events in Ukraine and compare this with the reporting of other events and conflicts around the world: Are there any examples of stereotyping and bias? How are choices are made about which stories are covered or given prominence? How does news reporting vary within and between countries?

Using images can be a powerful way to prompt discussion and critical thinking about an issue. (Picture: Radka Dolinska/Oxfam)

7. Build empathy and challenge stereotypes

There are many resources online to provide an insight into the experiences of some of the millions of people globally who are impacted by conflict. When using these materials in the classroom, it is important to be aware of and sensitive to the needs of learners with lived experience of migration and conflict. These activities from Oxfam Education help learners to reflect on the importance of home and think critically about why some people are forced to flee. Christian Aid have produced a Safe Place Ludo game to explore the difficult journeys made by people fleeing conflict. These teaching resources from the British Red Cross on the theme could also be used to develop empathy and understanding about the challenges many refugees face. The UNHCR website has lots of teaching materials on refugees, asylum, migration and statelessness, including useful facts and figures, animations and stories. UNICEF’s Forced to Flee resource and these learning materials  from Amnesty International UK and Theirworld may also be of interest. Pictures from the media like the one above could also be used to spark classroom discussion.

This teaching idea from Facing History & Ourselves helps learners  to empathise with Ukrainians forced to flee the conflict and highlights some of the inspiring ways in which governments, organisations and individuals are responding to the crisis. It also encourages learners to think critically about the treatment of refugees and migrants from other countries.

With reports of anti-Russian sentiments in the UK and elsewhere it is important to challenge stereotypes about Russians that may arise. Point out that there is a difference between the government and the population of a country, and that there are many different views among the Russian people about the events in Ukraine. Thousands of Russians have taken part in protests in their country about the conflict, risking arrest and prison in the process. Perhaps you could share photographs of the protests in Russia, or Russian soldiers taking part in the conflict, and ask learners to imagine how the people in the pictures might be feeling or thinking.

Support young people who want to take action

Many children and young people want to respond to the Ukraine crisis in active ways. Taking action can help young people to feel empowered, valued and engaged as they experience being part of bringing about positive change in the world, though it is important to make it clear such action is voluntary. As much as possible, children and young people should have ownership in choosing and shaping any personal action they decide to take.

One area of potential action is refugees. By the end of 2020, over 80 million people around the world had been forced to leave their homes, communities, and sometimes families, and start over somewhere new. Young people could be encouraged to think about how they could create a welcoming environment in their own classroom, school or community. This could be simple actions such as designing multilingual signs to display around their school, learning to say hello in different languages or creating a welcome pack with objects, activities and advice to help new students feel at home.

Schools could take this further by signing up to Schools of Sanctuary — a national network of more than 300 schools in the UK committed to ‘creating a culture of welcome and inclusion for refugees and people seeking asylum’. Another option is to get involved with Refugee Week, a UK-wide festival which is held each June to ‘celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary’.

Oxfam’s Schools Speak Out programme supports young people aged 11–16 to demonstrate leadership, take part in our latest campaigns and take action to help create a fairer, more secure and sustainable world for everyone. For example, they could learn about the lives and experiences of refugees in the UK and organise a school campaign to help keep families together.

Fundraising can also be a motivating, fun and educational way for young people to take action. Oxfam is a member of The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and is working with partner organisations to raise funds to provide lifesaving aid to people in Ukraine. Take a look at these guidelines for good practice in fundraising with young people.

Keep listening

The above ideas draw on content produced by development education centres and partner organisations, as well as Oxfam education resources. We also recommend taking a look at these selections of resources, one curated by Highland One World Global Learning Centre in Scotland and another put together by Cumbria Development Education Centre in England.

Across all of the above activities, and in any conversation related to Ukraine, it will be important to keep listening and giving children and young people space to talk about their feelings. Be prepared for difficult questions – and remember that you don’t need to have all the answers.


Liz Newbon

Liz Newbon is Education Participation Adviser at Oxfam GB