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A brave new way to teach kids about climate emotions


5 min read

Mar 7



A group of US educators wants to better support students’ emotional reaction to learning about climate justice

Image credit: Getty Images. Design by Gen Dread.

You can’t just teach kids the facts about the climate crisis and leave it at that.

Do you remember being in school and learning about something really distressing? Maybe it was nuclear bombs, slavery, the Holocaust, or the AIDS crisis. But after you learned the facts, how much space was made for the way it made you feel?

As social emotional learning becomes a bigger part of the K-12 curriculum across North America, a group of educators in the US – one of several committees that forms the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America – has been questioning the way climate science is being taught in many schools.

Carolyn McGrath, an art teacher in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District in New Jersey and one of the committee members, explains: “As the need for climate education becomes more recognized, I think that there might be the urge to just teach the science – that just the science is enough. If students just have enough knowledge, then that's enough. Where we're coming from is the field of climate psychology, which says it's not just about knowing enough –  there's this whole emotional realm that goes along with it. It's not neutral knowledge. It's about our existence. It's about our lives. It's about what we love and our place on the planet. It’s not like you're just teaching about an abstract concept. And so it seemed very important to create that bridge between climate justice and the emotional impact of learning about climate justice.”

Enter the Educator’s Guide to Climate Emotions, an in-depth document that arose from the committee’s discussions – and their dreams around how climate science would ideally be taught in K-12 classrooms. Their primary objective is to teach the teachers how to hold space for their students’ emotional responses to climate science, normalize those feelings, and ensure they feel safe and supported to explore and express them. This is a sneak peek, you can download the full compendium here. 

While the guide is aimed at professional educators, all of us as adults should be equipped to talk with young people about climate justice and handle whatever emotions are coming up for them. And so this guide is massively useful beyond the school setting, especially as these conversations around the dining table inevitably become more frequent.

Here are 10 key takeaways from the guide:

  1. Let’s recognize common emotions associated with the climate crisis – fear, dread, anger, sadness, despair – and let’s treat them as an understandable human response to our home being threatened, rather than a problem, a sign of mental illness, or a reaction to tamp down and tame.

  2. Let’s gently question all-or-nothing thinking. Many young people have arrived at the conclusion that humanity is beyond hope, but the science doesn’t really support that. Let’s recognize that this could be a defense mechanism for a young person who’s struggling to cope with the enormity of the problem.

  3. Let’s always look at climate discussions through an intersectional and equity lens. Some students may have more direct experience with climate disasters if they have family back in a vulnerable country. Some racialized students might not feel safe expressing emotion in public, for example Black boys, who often learn from a young age that this can lead to punishment. Neurodivergent kids might express feelings differently from what educators deem typical. People of colour are scientifically harder hit by climate disasters, and thus are typically more concerned about it. Let’s make space for the particular life experience of each student, understanding it may vary wildly.

  4. Let’s always centre the child’s experience in our climate discussions, rather than the adult’s. Kids are more at-risk from climate catastrophe than adults because their bodies are more vulnerable. Kids growing up today have lived with this threat since birth, and it’s important for adults to remember that childhood may no longer feel as carefree as it did for some of us – similarly, the future may not feel as exciting and limitless as it did for some of us. Finally, young people may lack both the capacity to hold this size of threat and the tools to express their feelings. This could mean they resort instead to numbness, jokes, apparent apathy, or concerning behaviour.

  5. Let’s continually check in with our own emotions as we’re teaching this stuff to young people. Regulating our emotions as adults is a crucial thing to model for kids, and it ensures we arrive at these conversations from a place of compassion and calm, ready to receive anything they might share with us.

  6. Let’s practice active listening with young people, who might be sharing experiences that we as adults have never had to face at such a young age. Let’s go in with the intention of holding truths that might differ from our own.

  7. Let’s tailor the message in age-appropriate ways, keeping in mind the developmental differences between elementary, middle, and high school students. Let’s empower older students to sharpen skills that aren’t climate-based per se, but that will help them wade through the onslaught of climate news – for example, media literacy, misinformation, manufactured consent, and critical thinking.

  8. Let’s weave Indigenous perspectives into our lessons and conversations. Teaching kids about ideas of interconnectedness, land stewardship, and seven generations is a crucial part of climate education in a world that so often erases and ignores the original caretakers of our lands and white-washes the movement.

  9. Let’s empower young people to participate in concrete action. Climate marches, starting campaigns, meeting with representatives – these help address feelings of despair for a lot of people, and teach young people what it looks like to be an engaged citizen.

  10. Let’s ensure young people feel wrapped in a web of community support. Getting other parents, teachers, community organizations, and neighbourhoods involved in your climate lessons helps remind students that they’re loved, seen, and part of something bigger than themselves, and that working together in community is ultimately how we make progress toward climate justice.

“I’m not an expert on any of this,”  McGrath says. “I'm learning and I'm trying as I'm going. It's a challenge to tackle these feelings around climate change as you're teaching climate change because they're so big and they're so hard and we don't have models for emotions in public spaces. That's one of the big challenges with education: it's almost like you're not really supposed to have feelings in the classroom, both as a teacher and as a student – but that's so much of what's going on right now. So I hope that what we're doing serves some need and now that we’re putting this guide out into the world, I hope it's useful”.

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