With love to Ukraine
About ten years ago I visited Kharkiv in Ukraine as the lead practitioner on a study visit for teachers from secondary schools. The visit took place in our Easter holiday and Ukraine was very cold with lying snow, but we quickly developed a deep affection for our host city and its people. The cityscape reflected the Soviet era as well as modern Ukraine in the massive Freedom Square and in the astonishing Shevchenko Park, dedicated to Ukraine’s best-known poet. We were guests at the Opera House, which is reportedly now a ruin as many of the places we visited must be. A lasting impression was of the fierce independence and commitment to Ukraine of the people we met, borne out by recent events.
We visited a kindergarten for babies and young children and were struck by the rows of cots as well as the rooms full of stimulating activities. We visited secondary schools in areas where the young people lived in huge tower blocks on bleak estates but where their commitment to education was exceptional. They all wanted to talk to us about their schoolwork and to practise their English with native speakers. They had ambitions to be doctors, engineers, teachers and to support the development of their country.
Shock, dismay and anger at the tragedy of Ukraine is a shared feeling across most of the world and for Ukrainians at home and abroad the destruction and waste of human potential are beyond comprehension. For those of us who know Ukraine even a little, our thoughts are with people we came to know. The school pupils will now be of fighting age and possibly on the front line, if they have even survived; we cannot know the fate of the education professor who was our main guide.
Even from the other side of Europe, it is easy to become overwhelmed by war and the suffering that results. This dims life’s positives, but the horror is balanced by the many exceptional human qualities that have emerged from the war both in Ukraine and globally. President Volodymyr Zelensky is a model of courageous leadership; Ukrainian people have shown incredible fortitude and resilience and the wider world is demonstrating compassion and concern. It is important for us all to consider how we can be part of that care and concern while protecting our own wellbeing. In any situation, we are of limited use to others if we are not caring for ourselves. Many of us also need to support children and young people in the current circumstances and to do our best to soothe their anxieties. Here, clarity, reassurance, and compassion are key and many of the ways of supporting children will aid adults too. Values and Visions offers, for example, Values for When Distressing Things Happen[i].
In relation to traumatic events which touch children’s lives, it is good to let the child lead the conversation. Children respond differently according to age and individual characteristics so the way in which we speak with children should respond to what they are saying. It is good to hear what children believe is happening, making sure the information they have heard is correct. This is particularly important given children and young adults’ access to social media. If they are keen to learn more, then help direct them to reliable age-appropriate sources of information but discourage them from looking at graphic images, sharing distressing stories or trying to understand overly complex explanations which might exacerbate their concerns.
Be clear with children that their response and feelings are valid and a natural reaction to the things that they have heard. Allow them to talk as much, or as little, as they wish. It is often helpful to explain that many similar situations have been resolved. To help give context for older children, we can also explain that unfortunately other conflicts are also happening (and indeed this may be known to them). Ultimately, when talking with children, adults should make it clear that it is not the child’s responsibility to resolve this conflict and that there are many people working to help the people affected and to bring an end to the war.
Nevertheless, helping children to get involved in a practical way with supporting people affected by the conflict can reduce their anxiety. They could contribute to fundraising or clothes collections for people fleeing the conflict, write to politicians asking them to do all they can to bring peace and find out how people seek sanctuary. Making posters calling for peace, creating and displaying a Ukrainian flag or planting sunflowers (the national flower of Ukraine) all show solidarity with Ukrainians at their time of unbelievable suffering.
Ros Garside, trustee of The Values & Visions Foundation
[i] Available for download from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Values-for-when-distressing-things-happen-7889180 ; also included in our bundle Exploring Conflict.