All of us have seen the pictures and heard the stories of the horrendous violence in Israel and Gaza. Even as adults it can be difficult to comprehend the harm, the suffering and the pain that we are witnessing.
As the founder of a MAT with over 30,000 students from very diverse backgrounds, I know how confusing and upsetting the present conflict is for many young people. What happens in the Middle East has repercussions for many of our children here – at home, at school and in our communities.
Many of our students are seeing graphic images of violence and destruction on television and on social media (where extreme content often goes unfiltered) while also trying to navigate their way through online disinformation.
Some children will have experienced bullying or hurtful remarks which target their ethnicity or religion. Others will be anxious or upset because they feel helpless or scared. Many will be frightened for the safety of other children, and for themselves and their families.
Some may even suffer long-term trauma.
A curriculum that ignores these issues and leaves children and young people reliant on picking up random messages from different media and adult conversation for information is one that leaves them marooned.
Our duty as school leaders is not to brush what is happening under the carpet but to be there to help children and their parents and caregivers to navigate the overwhelming task of responding to fears and worries about war.
That means being proactive: finding out what children know and how they feel, listening and giving them the space to talk, encouraging them to say what they think and to ask questions. It means answering their questions honestly, in an age-appropriate way, while watching their reactions and being sensitive to their level of anxiety.
Younger children may not distinguish between images on screen and their own personal reality. They may believe they’re in immediate danger. Older children might have seen worrying images or messages on social media and be scared about how events might escalate. Younger children may be satisfied just by understanding that sometimes countries fight. Older children will need more details.
It is important that all children in our schools feel supported, not judged, and that their concerns are not dismissed. We know that though anxiety is crippling, given the opportunity for open and honest conversations about what upsets them, the stress that children feel can be greatly relieved.
We should also remind our students that none of this is their problem to solve. Adults all over the world are working hard to try and fix this. Children shouldn’t feel guilty playing, seeing their friends and doing the things that make them happy.
Conflict can bring prejudice and discrimination, whether against a people or country. It’s our task to encourage compassion, just as we do for all families who have been forced to flee their homes or who have lost loved ones.
The sense of doing something, no matter how small, can also bring great comfort: starting a fundraiser, taking part in an assembly, composing a poem or writing a letter to local or national decision-makers. In my experience, children who have the chance to contribute can feel like they are part of the solution instead of feeling helpless.
We can also talk with older children about the dead end of violence. As Martin Luther King said, the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
It is always for us to do everything we can to end the cycle of hate and violence. To grieve for every life lost, to pray for a world where every person’s life is safe and sacred, to break the cycle of retaliation and to work for peace by creating security not only for the people of Israel and Palestine, but for everyone, everywhere.
To quote Martin Luther King again, “Hate will never drive out hate; only love will do that.”
This is surely the message we must embrace and repeat in our schools as we help and support our children through these troubled and uncertain times.
The department for education’s Israel-Hamas conflict: Advice for schools from Ministers can be found here