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Strategies for Teaching Sensitive Issues in the Elementary Social Studies Classroom

Supporting social and emotional learning (SEL)  in the elementary classroom is a key component in helping students in understanding themselves and the world around them. It is inevitable that societal issues will find a way into the classroom and this guide provides some guidelines for how to embrace courageous conversations. The  key components to consider when engaging students in discussion and activities is to support students in the following:

  • How to achieve goals
  • Model for students how to show empathy
  • Support students in building positive relationships

These core strategies have been critical in the work of responsive teachers. Acknowledging your own biases is important to finding resources to support your classroom. It is not easy work but it is most definitely important work. When tensions arise the most important strategies to embrace are to

  1. Acknowledge the issue. It doesn't go away simply because we ignore it.
  2. Be flexible with your plans. Students need to know they are in a caring environment and sometimes that means we will modify the learning plan for the day to make sure we are all okay.

Specific strategies to consider:

Teacher Moves

What It May Look Like In the Classroom

Establish Nurturing Space for Students to Express Ideas & Thoughts  (Civic Space)

Acknowledge the issue

Seek to clarify student comments-Give students a chance to explain the thought process behind a remark (“What do you mean by X?” or “I heard you saying Y; is that what you meant to say?”) or (“Do you want to try saying that differently?” And then, perhaps, “Let’s talk about why that statement felt so problematic.”).

Try to depersonalize the issue to help minimize defensiveness. 

Ask for additional possible points of view

Find common ground. (“I hear that you both care deeply about achieving X, but you have strong opinions about how to get there”)

Establish Norms for Discussions

Remind students of your discussion or participation guidelines.

Guide students to reflect individually and/or collectively

Use Writing as a Means of Process Associated Emotions

Invite students to journal reflections quietly, or take a few deep breaths.  For younger students, invite them to draw or color as a means of processing emotions.

Use A Balance of Credible Texts to Ground The Thinking

Find a way to connect the issue to course topics or learning goals. Teachable moments are everywhere!.

Always Follow Up


Check in outside of class with the students most directly involved in the issue.

Connect with your own support network, especially if you felt targeted or personally affronted by the issue.

Instructional Lessons For the Classroom

Facilitating a Discussion About the January 6th Electoral College Confirmation Hearings

Primary Grades K-2- Kindness Matters

Intermediate Grades 3-5- Children As Changemakers

Secondary Grades 6-12-Youth As Changemakers

For Families and Communities