How to address uncomfortable questions in the elementary classroom

“Out of the mouths of babes…”  Elementary teachers are often faced with uncomfortable questions, usually asked in front of a large group of people and therefore putting teachers in an awkward position.  The uncomfortable questions asked by lower elementary children are usually quite innocent and sparked by pure curiosity, yet because they surprise us, they are often ignored or met with indignation.  As educators we have an opportunity to set the tone for much more than one question.  We can help create a model and set a societal tone for dealing with controversial issues during adulthood.  I dare say, a good model of dealing with uncomfortable questions in elementary school will promote social discourse and dialogue about controversial issues when our students become adults.

Uncomfortable situations create teaching moments and give us opportunities not only to address the elephant in the room and make a topic less of a taboo but also to model appropriate behavior and teach about empathy and politeness.  Not addressing uncomfortable questions or sweeping them under the rug will only create a fertile ground for kids to start sneaking behind our backs where the problem will grow.  The children know you heard the question and you cannot “unhear” it, so not answering it sends a message that, while the question remains unanswered, it should never be brought up again.

“Miss, did you see this boy has no fingers?” A 5-year old girl (let’s call her Anna) points her own finger at her new classmate.  This actually happened to me when I was teaching Year 1.  I had a student with no fingers on either of his hands.  My initial reaction was to shush Anna and pray the “boy with no fingers” (let me call him David) did not hear the comment.  But instead I said: “Yes.  We are all very different. Do you have a question? What makes you curious about David’s hands?”  My comment did not put David on the spot but instead acknowledged that it was a curious situation – probably the first person with no fingers Anna encountered – and that it was OK to ask about it.  I encouraged Anna to re-phrase her comment. Instead of pointing her finger at David, I made her think what is it about this situation that makes her wonder.  Quite a few children joined with their questions for David and suddenly an uncomfortable question became a teaching moment which everyone — including David — appreciated.  From that day on, the children did not stare and David did not try to hide his hands. 

Here are a few things to remember while dealing with uncomfortable questions.

There are no wrong questions

As educators we often say “There are no stupid questions.”  I would like to add to this and say: “there are also no wrong questions.”  It is our responsibility as educators to create an environment where children feel comfortable to ask any question as long as it comes from a genuine desire to know. Such an environment should be kind and full of respect for each other. If we assume the children don’t mean to be rude or judgemental, they won’t be. And if they ask their question in a rude or judgemental way, it is up to us to help them rephrase it with kindness and empathy and to dig in deeper to find out where the question is coming from and how to ask it better. 

Tackle each question head on 

Teachers have both the opportunity and obligation to recognize uncomfortable topics as teaching moments.  Addressing the elephant in the room is always better than ignoring it.  It validates the situation and teaches how to formulate convincing arguments. Instead we usually tend to shy away, feel embarrassed and tell the kids that is not something we do or talk about.  And why not? Why don’t we want to talk about it? By not talking about it, whatever “it” may be, we may cause damage for years to come. We create an environment in which we don’t talk about certain issues and they grow bigger.   

Let your children know you are a learner as well

Some uncomfortable situations stem from encountering phenomena we have never encountered before. This does not just happen to children. Let your students know you are a learner yourself and when faced with an awkward situation, model how to ask questions which are sensitive and compassionate to gather information and make an informed decision.  

Model and teach empathy

One day, in Year 1, we were learning how to count by 5s.  This is normally done while showing your 5 fingers on each hand and alternating hands, but having David in the class meant finding new ways to teach.  Instead, I chose to have the children punch the air with their fists,  or use their toes while stomping their feet.  One of the children noticed and commented on it after the class.  He understood what I did and why I did it.  He was very proud of himself for figuring it out and he was ready to do something similar in the future. 

Model and teach discourse

When uncomfortable questions arise, use them to promote discussion.  Help students formulate their opinions in a non-confrontational way.  Teach them to react to comments by questioning rather than criticizing.  In the digital age we seem to have lost the skill of debating each other.  Why debate, if we can “unfriend” whoever we disagree with?  In the early 2000s, students at Williams College founded Uncomfortable Learning, an organization which promoted the importance of engaging with all ideas and points of view for greater learning. Zachary Wood, who was the president of the group, firmly believes that civil debate is a crucial part of one’s education. I found his Ted Talk on “Why it’s worth listening to people you disagree with” truly inspirational. If, as elementary school teachers we can help promote open dialogue and don’t shy away from uncomfortable questions, we can contribute to a better world.  Our model might just carry over to high school, university and adult life.  

To listen to Zachary’s TED Talk, click here:

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