Skip to content

Facilitating class conversation in the wake of distressing current events

Our classrooms (whether physical or virtual) do not exist in a vacuum. They are sites in which both students and faculty may be processing emotions engendered by distressing current events. The guidance below includes strategies to help you foster thoughtful and difficult conversations in light of unsettling current events, particularly those that evoke strong emotional responses and significant disagreement. They also point to mental health resources you can share with students who may need additional support during challenging times.

Preparation and planning

One of the best things you can do as an instructor is to plan ahead for how to address distressing events with students. Here are some steps to guide that planning process:

  • Check with your department or academic unit to see if there is a departmental strategy in place for addressing the event.
  • Decide how much time you want to set aside to address the event. Adjust your course plans accordingly. In times of crisis, executive functioning (ability to reason, prioritize, concentrate, etc.) can be interrupted, so students may need additional time and energy to process and/or consult with campus resources.
  • Explore how you might integrate the event into your subject matter so that you are still focused on your course learning goals.
  • Consider building flexibility into your assessments. For example, if you can, reschedule an exam, or make the deadline for an assignment a window rather than specific date.
  • Establish community agreements with your students. These can help set expectations and accountability for respectful, productive communication.

Leading the discussion

Intentional facilitation can help ease (rather than exacerbate) students’ emotions and mitigate unnecessary conflict. Here are some strategies for effective facilitation:

  • Start by acknowledging these are challenging times and that students may be dealing with pressures beyond the classroom.
  • If you don’t already have a set of community agreements, be sure to establish some guidelines and outcomes for the conversation. Make sure you emphasize the need to center respect, care, active listening, and turn-taking.
  • Listen. Each person will be impacted differently by the distressing event. For many students, it is important that they feel heard.

Following up after class

It’s unlikely that a single conversation will be all students need in the wake of an unsettling event. Here are a few things you might do to follow up with students.

  • Consider inviting students to meet with you after class or during office hours if they would like to continue the conversation. If it works with your schedule, consider offering a couple of additional office hours.
  • Invite anonymous feedback from students on:
    • How the discussion went for them
    • What else you might do to help
    • Anything else they want to share
  • Share information about the campus resources that support student mental health and well-being