Perspectives: Talking with kids about racial injustice

8 answers

Kids across the country are seeing and feeling pain over the killing of George Floyd. Some are witnessing the impact of racism for the first time. Others have lived with it their whole lives. But all kids need to be able to talk about what’s happening around them and express what they’re thinking and feeling. And they need to be heard and understood.

Taking in the events that are unfolding is especially hard for kids who struggle with emotions, anxiety, language, and processing information. It’s also often not easy for the people who care for them — parents, caregivers, and educators.

We’ve reached out to members of our Understood team, our experts, educators, and young adults to share their perspectives, experiences, and advice as a way to talk about racism and current events with kids who learn and think differently.

Answer fromKristin J. Carothers, PhD

Even if kids have difficulty with emotions or processing information, parents must engage in discussion. Give children information in a way they can hear it. Check the response to make sure you’re not giving too much.

Acknowledge that the country is going through a traumatic time. Certain communities have been impacted by COVID-19 more than other communities and treated unfairly by police and other systems. This is real. It’s not a perception.

For preschool kids you can say, “There are lots of people who are very hurt because they haven’t been treated kindly. They are trying to tell people that in a way that’s calm, but they haven’t been listened to.”

With school-age kids, take your cue from them. Answer their questions, and if you don’t have the information, tell them you will find the answer. Parents need to be aware of their own emotions and deal with their own bias or emotions.

Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers get much of their information through social media. Ask what they’ve seen and heard. Let them lead the conversation, and listen to what they say. But supplement what they’re hearing. You can do this work as a family. Watch PBS’s Eyes on the Prize together. Read NPR or the newspaper.

Give kids a way to express what they’re hearing and feeling — through writing, art, or any other way they feel comfortable doing it. As a family, support a cause like Blackout Tuesday. Explain that it’s another way to make our voices heard.

You don’t have to have all the answers, but don’t avoid the conversation. It’s OK to not be sure and to share how you’re feeling, too.

Kristin Carothers, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist.

Answer fromAtira Roberson

The death of yet another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, has sent an excruciatingly painful shock wave through our country. Black people in America are hurting — and have been for hundreds of years because of the systemic racism that we face.

Right now, we as people of color are looking around trying to figure out where we go from here. We’re past the point of saying enough is enough. Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. 

Teachers and families may be asking, “What part do we play in this situation?” 

Speaking as a Black student, my response is that you all should be taking time with your students and your children to make sure they feel heard. Have purposeful discussions, even if painful, about what’s going on right now.

Don’t think that just because a child is young, learns differently, or has a disability that they don’t understand what’s going on. They’re aware of more than you think they are. Make sure you let them know that what and how they feel is valid — because it really is.

No one expects that one or even a few conversations will solve what’s going on right now. But we’re obligated to initiate purposeful discussions to start figuring out how to make a change and take action, because this can’t happen anymore.

Atira Roberson is a student in grad school.

Answer fromKhalil Munir

In light of the situations that are occurring around the country, I urge parents to be as transparent as possible with their children. I encourage them to sit down and have open and honest conversations about the state of our country. Transparency and vulnerability are powerful and can be brought to the table to start healing.

There are a group of individuals in this country who are fighting to be heard, seen, understood, and respected. Parents with children who learn differently are also fighting for their child to be heard, seen, understood, and respected in the educational space. This could be a parallel that you draw for an example [when you talk with your child].

Khalil Munir is a dancer, actor, writer, and teaching artist.

Answer fromShaquala Holmes, MEd

If I’m not fully prepared to present to students when things like this happen in the Black community or in any marginalized community, Teaching Tolerance is a good resource. I usually join conversations with educators and become more intentional in how I communicate the way this affects our students of color during this time.

Shaquala Butler, MA, is a fourth-grade general education teacher.

Answer fromKareem Neal, MA

We’re out of school, but I have virtual meetings twice a week with my social justice club, so we talked about it on Saturday. I kind of approached it in a real/raw way. We do check-ins before starting our lessons, and almost everyone chimed in with their thoughts on the murder of Mr. Floyd.

Perhaps because it’s a social justice club, they focused more on his death than on the protests. It really turned into a conversation about how the student leaders in my club should talk to their Black friends (my school and club are approximately 93% Latina/Chicano).

Kareem Neal, MA, is a special education teacher.

Answer fromVanessa Bertone

As a mom to two young boys, it has always been important to teach them to respect everyone no matter their skin color. Go into things with open hearts and minds. It’s my job to show them how to lead with love in the face of hate.

Vanessa Bertone is the community manager for Understood.

Answer fromShira Moskovitz, MA

I spent so much time thinking about the best way to approach the topic in my diverse classroom. Our morning meeting theme was that avoiding the topic is not a solution.

Racism continues because many people avoid difficult conversations about it. I also mentioned that we don’t have all the answers — and that’s OK. But we have a safe place to express our thoughts, fears, and concerns, and to ask questions.

Shira Moskovitz, MA, is a special education teacher.

Answer fromShivohn N. García, PhD

I’m an educator. I’m also the mom of a 2-year-old son. For my students and for him, I’ve always believed that an important part of education is learning from mistakes to do things differently the next time.

I look around now, and I’m heartbroken, appalled, and, sadly, not surprised. But I also have hope. More than ever, it’s clear that education and action are crucial for making lasting social change.

We have to learn from this moment. We need to educate ourselves on the histories and lived experiences of our communities. We have to do the work of taking apart systems of oppression and build an anti-racist society.

But knowing and understanding isn’t enough. We have to translate what we learn first into empathy, and then into action for change. It’s not going to happen without a shared commitment to equity. Our students and our children deserve that effort from us.

Shivohn García, PhD, is senior director of the Impact team at Understood.


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