How should teachers talk to their students in the event of a terrorist attack?

In light of the Manchester terror attacks, how should schools and teachers respond when there has been a terrorist attack in UK or elsewhere? Students will be asking questions, talking among themselves, talking with families. Schools cannot ignore events, however controversial and disturbing it is to raise them. Here’s our top 6 tips:

  1. The first thing is groundwork. Schools need to feel prepared. It is useful if they have already had discussion among staff using real or imagined case studies of violence (Far Right, Islamist, animal rights, lone wolves). It is important that there is school unity, and support for teachers who want to discuss issues in the classroom or in form time. Some schools will suspend their curriculum to talk across the school about a current event, or will develop a specific assembly.
  2. Schools can find ways to embed events in existing learning. It sounds cynical to say you can turn an outrage into a ‘teachable moment’, but the question is whether or how it can fit into existing strands of learning. Discussion in PSHE can revolve round what turns people to violence. Is violence ever acceptable? What are other ways to create change? This can link to work on fundamental British values and mechanisms for democratic change.
  3. Children will experience a sense of fear, but also powerlessness. What can young people do? If there were a natural disaster such as an earthquake, they can raise money. With a human-inspired catastrophe, there are still victims, but these may be wider and more indirect than those targeted. After an extreme Islamist terrorism attack, there can be an increase in Islamophobia or general racism. Children can be warned that they may hear racist/Islamophobic/negative remarks and can be encouraged to dispute them if appropriate or safe to do so. It is important children know who they can talk to in a safe space. Do you have policies in place? Are your staff confident talking about these issues? It’s important that solutions remain part of a school’s overall programme of acting against hate and violence.
  4. Although the general principle is discussion and encouraging questions from students, there has to be care with replaying an event and causing undue shock. A recent case was of a teaching assistant who criticised her primary school showing graphic scenes of 9/11, with bodies falling from the building. She was dismissed, but won her case for unfair dismissal. Such videos have the obvious capacity to upset and frighten children, implying that the same could happen here. Teachers should try to reassure children that such attacks are isolated, but teachers cannot promise to keep children safe.
  5. Linked to this is media analysis and social media imagery – looking at what the media are seizing on (for example when they go straight to the perpetrator being a ‘Muslim convert’ instead of narrating the real complexity of their lives). After the Westminster attack, some papers showed a highly cropped picture, which seemed to highlight a Muslim girl just walking past, on her phone. Pan out and you see many other people in the frame who were passing by, with everyone unable to help, and with medics already surrounding the body.
  6. What should I do if I am worried about a child who seems vulnerable? There is a scale of action, from informal conversation through to referral to authorities. Firstly, it is best to try to open up dialogue, not being judgmental but trying to find out what is behind the worrying behaviour. Young people often want to explore issues, for example talking about politics or religion – this is a positive thing. Former extremists often tell us that parents should try to keep the lines of talking open, try to listen, and tackle the tricky questions together. The idea is to help young people learn and grow, while building resilience to negative ideas and arguments. Talk to your child’s teachers, youth workers, community organisations and other parents – there are always people to get advice and support from.

For more information please contact us: [email protected]  

For staff and student training around extremism and safeguarding in schools more info can be found on:

Comments (5)

  1. Phillip Jones:

    Schools should stay clear of educating children on terrorism, embedding children on those ideals does not help them have a balanced view at all.
    I’v had an issue with schools learning children about the holocaust for humanitarian reasons, why?
    The holocaust is a fraction of the story, it is biased around one religion, one event, with personal stories thrown in for good measure.
    At the same period of the holocaust, the allies themselves, committed acts of genocide, just as cruel, amounting to millions more, but we hear nothing, children hear nothing, and those events, and the people who suffered never get heard.
    So my argument becomes this, teaching children on the subject of the terrorist attack could possibly be a bias, how are children affected?
    Would it be like the teaching of the holocaust?
    Some children become distressed on that subject, and they will feel it much more on the current terrorist subject.
    I feel the way that children are “embedded” is no more than indoctrination, or come to that a form of child abuse.
    A remembrance for the people who have passed is as far as it should go.
    As far as teaching of atrocities go, I believe a full example of the subject, including narrative should be passed to parents for scrutiny, before any permission is given for the teaching.

    1. cjuser:

      Very valid points. However, if the “news” of terrorism is everywhere (and in this instance there will be a disproportionate number of young people affected and killed too) then the need to talk, discuss and share is present. What should they talk about instead and how soon do they talk about atrocities?

    2. SKhan:

      I agree that if we are not careful, we end up teaching parts of history and current affairs as one-dimensional events with only one thing to learn from them. ‘Nazis are bad.’ ‘Jews suffered hugely.’ ‘Terrorism aims to divide us.’ ‘Nationalism is the only justifiable response.’

      However, I don’t think that a good way to teach these ideas would be a one-dimensional approach. When embedded in a wider scheme of learning, one which is already based on independent and critical thinking, then discussing these topics opens up a far wider range of ideas, such as ‘what is social responsibility and who should have it?’ Or ‘to what extent can we fully trust all news that we hear and what skills are needed to navigate a world of immediate publication of personal views?’

      Also, whilst I think it is important for parents to fully understand what their children do with their time at school, we also need to work more closely to build trust with parents and communities again. A maths department are not expected to justify their curriculum because it is in-line with national advice. The same applies to controversial issues. It definitely shouldn’t be hidden from parents, and of course the should have a right to have an input on what happens in their child’s education, but they should also be able to trust that good teachers will nurture a trusting and safe environment for their children to explore difficult, contentious and ethical issues. Also, we can’t always know where these conversations will lead. We don’t always know what a student has seen on social media, or what thoughts these events may give rise to, and so parents can never be made fully aware of the range of conversations that may come up; we are often not aware of them until they have happened! I think that, so long as a trusting relationship which is based on good communication with parents occurs, these issues are absolutely vital to what we do as educators.

      For some examples of ways in which to do this well, maybe check out Facing History and Ourselves for a solid starting point. They run some great CPD on this, but of course aren’t the only group who do.

Leave a Reply

5 × 3 =

9/11: The Al Qaeda attacks on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington on 11th September 2001, which triggered President George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and the  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7/7: The co-ordinated bomb attacks on London by four young British men in the name of Al Qaeda, on 7th July 2005, which killed 52 people.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, which committed the 9/11 attacks.

Islamic State (Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL): Terrorist group formed after the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. It is the most prominent recruiter of Westerners to its mission to establish its own state.

CONTEST & the ‘4 Ps’: The British Government’s Counter Terrorism strategy initiated in 2006, revised in 2011, consisting of 4 strands: Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Pursue.

Prevent: Aiming to stop (prevent) individuals from supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists.