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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine plays out in real time across news and social media, many parents and teachers are looking for guidance on how to talk to their young people about the crisis and how they can help.
As with other conflicts and refugee emergencies of the past, this one hits closer to home for some people than others. There are 1,009,874 Ukrainians across the United States, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 46,000 live in Michigan, according to the Ukrainian American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan — a coalition of Ukrainian American organizations including churches, credit unions, schools, museums and cultural centers across the state — which have come together in recent weeks.
“In almost every major city, including Detroit, there are Ukrainian diaspora communities,” said Eugene Bondarenko, a lecturer at University of Michigan Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. “There’s always a delicate situation where you have to teach something that you may be traumatized by, or is in general a very heavy topic,” Bondarenko said.
READ MORE: ‘It is very difficult to reach anyone.’ Ukrainians in the U.S. despair watching Russian invasion from afar
The PBS NewsHour reached out to teachers and parent educators across the country to get their advice on how to address the issue and have open dialogue with kids at home, in schools and in your community.
The conflict in Ukraine has many parallels in history, and many people from many countries have experiences of war, colonization, displacement, and trauma in their or their family’s history. Thinking about one’s own or one’s family’s experiences and feelings can be one starting point in helping young people process what is happening in Europe right now.
For parents and educators, that means making sure to manage your own anxiety, fear, and trauma, even if that means consuming less media.
“You need to manage your own fears and worries and your own well-being first, because your child picks up on that, even on the level of physiology,” said Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a certified parent educator and author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.” “Our kids can tell when we are in a reactive state, when we are agitated, when we are scared or anxious.”
In today’s climate, it is particularly important also to be aware of the additional stressors placed on children and young people, or the traumas they may have already experienced. “Bearing in mind the current levels of stress today’s students are under — pandemic, economic, political,” the adults in their lives should “tread carefully,” said Melissa Monzyk, a trauma-informed English language arts teacher at Ritenour High School in Missouri.
Parents and teachers should carefully think through the themes of the conversation before beginning because the topic may be triggering for children and young people who have experienced trauma.
“When discussing the current war in Ukraine, children and families of color require specific consideration,” said Monica Belton, a licensed social worker and certified trauma and resilience professional.
READ MORE: 6 months after arriving in U.S., Afghan evacuees still worry about the families they left behind
“As a person of color, it is clear that other conflicts, which have occurred in other places around the world, have never received the same coverage or worldwide response as we see in the outcry for Ukraine,” Belton said. “Parents and teachers must remember that dialogues about public conflict can cause trauma for young people. Some causes of the trauma may seem clear. The loss of safety, the violence, and fear of the unknown is evident.”
How a parent or teacher approaches difficult and potentially traumatic topics will always depend on the age, emotional readiness, and background of the child or young person. One way to start the conversation is to ask what the child has already seen or heard, then respond with age-appropriate facts.
“You may find that they have misinformation about ‘World War III starting’ or really inaccurate things. So ask them what they’ve heard. If they’re scared, [ask] what scares them, and begin from there,” Lewis said. “You always want to be honest without giving kids more information than they can handle based on their age. If you don’t know the answers, you can always say to your child, let’s find out together.”
In addition to facts, parents and teachers can share some coping strategies for dealing with fears and anxieties.
“Experiment with your child around what can help them manage those scary thoughts,” Lewis said. “Is it belly breathing? Is it going for a walk outdoors? Is it playing with a pet? You know, what are the things that your child can do when they’re feeling overwhelmed? And it usually does come back to the body.”
One specific exercise Lewis suggests is the pizza trick. “Pretend you have a piece of pizza in your hand and you’re smelling it,” Lewis said. “So they breathe in, and then blow on the pizza to cool it down, so they’re breathing out. And that’s a way for them to visualize something that’s comforting and also connect with their breath. When we connect with our breath. It sends a message to our nervous system to calm down and that is really really important whenever there is anxiety or, or fears around it.”
For older children, Lewis suggests looking for the helpers and finding ways for the child to help.
“Whether it’s aid groups, whether it’s people who are protesting the war, looking at stories of resistance are really empowering for children,” Lewis said. “If they can find some way to help, whether that’s putting together some relief packages or writing letters of support, taking action also gives us a sense of control in a situation that’s very scary.”
University of Michigan students march through campus for the Stand with Ukraine march and rally on Feb 24, 2022, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photograph by Irina Bondarenko
When Bondarenko talks to students in his classes on the Ukrainian and Russian languages, modern Ukraine, and Russian militarism, he tries to frame the topic with historical context.
“Ukraine has had a history of three and a half centuries of trying to attain statehood through struggles with empires as diverse as the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Hungarian Empire,” he said.
As a historian, he also draws parallels to Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.
However he does not simply give his own personal opinions. He also supports his views by highlighting the opinions of other experts like Brookings Institution senior fellow Fiona Hill and the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba.
WATCH MORE: Ukraine’s history and its centuries-long road to independence
Aside from recent history, there’s a longer view, Benton notes. “Since 1478, the color of someone’s skin has led to international atrocious and violations of human rights. Every continent in the world has experienced a form of genocide, enslavement, or religious backed crusades that are often discussed as a part of an ancient history. Acts of hostile takeovers are often construed to have occurred thousands of years ago by a civilization of people that lacked morals or the crucial intellect to legislate peaceful communities, with safe and just societal rules,” she said. Those can become discussion points, too.
She said there is an opportunity to focus on solutions by pointing to adults “working all around the world to resolve other conflicts. You can also take this opportunity to lay out some historical information about conflicts that other populations have experienced and persevered through,” she added.
As a teacher, Bondarenko said he does not try to push solutions on students.
Instead, talking with young people about one’s values and the basis for those values gives them room to develop their own ethical reasoning to support their own positions on complex issues.
Classroom discussion is a common pedagogical tool for helping students develop their own opinions and learning to support their arguments with facts. Talking with people you know, as well as with public figures, can also be a way to help spread awareness and develop the public’s view on the issue.
Bondarenko also recommends challenging misinformation or misperceptions with regard to Ukraine if they come up in conversation. People who are not personally connected to the current crisis — or the countries in conflict — may not have deeply entrenched opinions, so there is room for education.
Detroit Public TV One Detroit’s Bill Kubota talks with two local Ukrainian American attorneys, Natalia Kujan Gentry and Danylo Terlecky, to learn about their efforts to tell the real stories of the conflict overseas and their battle to fight back against misinformation being spread online.
As the war in Ukraine continues, it is important to keep talking about it with children and young people. One conversation is not enough as they process additional information and their developing feelings.
“Don’t try to ‘teach’ the conflict as a single lesson plan and then call it ‘covered,’ Monzyk said. “For example, after an initial lesson [or] discussion of the topic, consider a weekly check-in with students where they can discuss what’s new in the news and how they are feeling about it. Don’t ‘one and done,’ potentially leaving students with trauma with a lot on their minds and no further outlet to express their thoughts and feelings.”
One learning model Monzyk suggests is the “lenses” model of how to view a situation. “Many students may be able to discuss Ukraine through a purely academic or historical lens, some through a media analysis/rhetorical lens, and some will be able to discuss the situation through a personal lens,” Monzyk said. Some students may know people affected by this conflict and some may have similar personal or familial experiences such as being a refugee.
“Remind students that all lenses are valid, but that those students viewing through a personal lens may feel more strongly and experience more emotions than those unable to connect to the conflict personally,” Monzyk said. “Teach empathy, use validating language, and reiterate respect respect respect while in discussions.”
Families who have more recently experienced colonization, immigration, or displacement may find this an opportunity or opening to talk more about their own history and experiences.
“Talk about resilience, talk about learning through struggle, talk about the things that families and communities have had to suffer and how they’ve come out of it stronger,” Lewis said. “Because that gives our children a path. And if you personally and your family have experienced trauma, it’s really important to honor that and to let your child be honest about their own fears and their own negative feelings.”
“Do not try to explain them away or tell your child not to feel them because those hard emotions are real and acknowledging them is the first step to moving through them,” Lewis said, pointing to the recent film, “Encanto,” as another possible path into this conversation with its themes of intergenerational trauma, displacement, immigration, and redemption.
Monzyk also suggests multiple outlets for young people to explore their feelings on this subject. “Open-ended writing prompts, mediated discussions, and even anonymous (but teacher-supervised) message boards give students a chance to vent in ways that allow the teacher insight into each student’s emotional state.”
Help your child or young person learn how to navigate the media when it comes to finding reputable sources, taking breaks when needed, interpreting what they find, and filling in the gaps.
In terms of navigating informational media resources, Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit that makes entertainment and technology recommendations for families and schools, recommends these reputable sources of news and information.
Lewis encourages parents to teach children how to recognize when they need to take a media break. “[Recognize] how much is too much and pay attention to if your body is feeling tight, if your breathing is shallow,” Lewis said. “Those are the cues that tell you [to] take a break, maybe a couple days without thinking about or reading about or learning about the war.”
WATCH MORE: Families flee homes in Ukraine as death toll mounts
In addition to factual information, young people may also need guidance in how to interpret the media coverage and the world’s response through a social justice lens.
”From Disney to Wall Street, organizations have spoken out in support of Ukrainian citizens and the plea for peaceful resolution. In other territories around the world, where people are darker, this has never been the case. We have never heard of Netflix pulling its film service from Nigeria or major gas companies refusing to supply fuel in Libya,” Belton said.
Without wanting to insinuate that one disturbance is greater than another, Belton’s point is that talking “about the Russian invasion in Ukraine has more implications than what one may think. In addition to sharing age-appropriate factual information, current event conversations should also include additional information about the immoral foundations that have shaped our societies around the world for centuries.”
For communities with many BIPOC, immigrant, or refugee families, Monzyk suggests using poetry and music to highlight shared experiences of marginalized groups and war-torn countries and to fill in the gaps on these topics in media coverage.
“Offer selections that center on a thematic commonality, such as injustice, loneliness, and grief, from multiple areas of the world. These universal expressions of common emotions from those who have endured racism, persecution, invasion, war, fleeing, etc., allow students to see and feel the lived experience of everyone affected by these situations,” Monzyk said. “Just because the media may or may not give equal coverage to a crisis depending on where it occurs, those in the crisis suffer equally and deserve equal compassion for their humanity.”
University of Michigan students gather on the Diag at the center of campus for the Stand with Ukraine march and rally on Feb 24, 2022, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Burton Memorial Tower is in the background. Photograph by Irina Bondarenko
In a speech on the Michigan Senate floor, State Senator Adam Hollier said that there is an opportunity for Michigan to be a leader in welcoming refugees because of the state’s values and because so many of the people living in Michigan had been welcomed from someplace else.
“Michigan has always been a welcoming community,” Hollier said. “It has always been a state that took in people who were looking for a better opportunity, and we have an opportunity to do that again.”
READ MORE: Tens of thousands of Afghans have resettled across the U.S. Now, the challenge is making a home
Vigils, rallies, marches, and prayer services are being held in communities across the country and around the world. Young people can easily attend and learn more, as well as see who else in their community is standing up on this issue.
When asked during a virtual roundtable what to bring to an upcoming rally in Metro Detroit, Borys Potapenko, a member of the Ukrainian American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, suggested that people bring “Banners, flags, your children. Let them learn and see how we Americans stand up for the values we so deeply believe in.”
Sometimes young people will surprise you by taking the lead. Bondarenko did not know about a rally held at University of Michigan after class one Thursday. “My students told me about it and they’re like, ‘Well, we’re all going, aren’t you going?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, of course!’ So I was really heartened by the fact that it’s not just me telling the students that there’s more to be done, and they can ask what there is to be done. It’s that they just go out and do it.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Americans in Michigan are mobilizing to provide and fundraise for humanitarian aid, medical supplies, and nonlethal military items.
While there are laws against shipping military equipment and components of weapons, “First aid kits are very important and no less important than guns or weapons,” Bondarenko said. “So I think this is something that we can do.”
READ MORE: How to help people in Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia
The Ukrainian American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan recommends four national nonprofit organizations that are accepting different kinds of contributions. It has also identified ways for people to contribute donations to help the Ukrainian military and the UN Refugee Agency. It has also prepared a one-page fact sheet, and has an FAQ and many resources and ways to help on its website.
The NewsHour has also put together a national resource guide for how to help people in Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia.
Writing letters and making calls to your elected officials can also be a way of showing support. “We call our friends and neighbors, people of goodwill and compassion here in our collective Michiganian home, to contact their elected representatives,” Mykola Murskyj, Chair of the Ukrainian American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan said in a Feb. 22 statement. “Together, we all can do our part to support freedom and democracy and prevent yet another major war in Europe.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.
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