How to Discuss Hot-Button Issues in the Classroom with Tolerance and Poise

By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking: 78 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)

How to Discuss Hot-Button Issues in the Classroom with Tolerance and PoiseEach year, at the first three-hour meeting of an introductory counseling course, I included a brief, high-impact activity about controversial topics, altering the list somewhat each year to reflect current social issues. I will describe the activity later in this post because it is related to discussing hot-button issues in the classroom.

The activity was important for counselors-in-training because they need to stay poised, regardless of whether someone is describing horrendous experiences, expressing white-hot anger, using foul language, or crying uncontrollably. If a counselor “falls apart” when hearing something terrible, for instance, a child or teen might become even more convinced that what she or he said was indeed “too awful to talk about.” Kids should be able to say what’s on their minds to a counselor, of course. Being able to express feelings and thoughts may be crucial to mental health in the wake of trauma, for example. Teachers likewise can squelch crucial and potentially life-altering and life-saving discussion because they fear, or become anxious about, discussing tough topics.

Embracing Disagreement and Complexity
Too often, perhaps due to what some observers say is the increasingly tribal nature of society, individuals and families may not engage in dialogue with people who think differently from them. Social media and narrowly channeled, perpetually available news reports may have exacerbated the negatives of that trend. Further polarization seems likely—unless young people can learn to listen to differing opinions without feeling the earth quake and without funneling thoughts into only right-or-wrong, good-or-bad gullies. Narrow, polarized exchanges typically do not allow nuanced shades of gray. It is not surprising, considering their cognitive development, that children and teens want to have a clear right-and-wrong understanding of complicated topics. Especially at those stages of development, helping kids have thoughtful, rational discussions even when people are disagreeing with one another is important.

Caring adults can offer guidance about what can be said—and where, when, and why. Ideally, these adults can also demonstrate, and help young people embrace, that disagreement is not necessarily abhorrent; it can be instructive and thought-provoking. I wanted the graduate students in that class to understand that disagreement is normal and can be civil and that they would have many personal and professional opportunities to use their skills to listen carefully and mediate differences.

Through the activity, I also wanted the counselors-in-training to understand that, wherever they are, they should never assume that all persons in a classroom, school, neighborhood, or business have similar thoughts about political figures, abortion, immigration, corporal punishment, divorce, adoption, bankruptcy, the environment, health care, or issues related to gender and sexuality, among many potentially incendiary issues. My memories of being in schools when major terrorism happened in the United States remind me of such assumptions. I heard teachers, administrators, and secretaries make confident, negative assumptions about cultural groups in response to such events—as if they believed that everyone around them agreed. “Plain nouns” can be loaded—patriotism, Christian, Muslim, conservative, liberal, immigrant, government, foreign. School shootings are currently not uncommon, and knee-jerk assumptions about contributing factors likewise need careful examination.

The Activity
The activity involved a half sheet of paper with a dozen statements that “took a stand.” In groups of three or four, students were to write a number from 1 to 10, with 1 being “not at all” and 10 being “highly,” that reflected how much they agreed with each statement. Then, in each group, one statement at a time, all members reported their numbers. They were not to discuss the statement. A volunteer in each group recorded the numbers, determined the range for each statement, and reported the range for each to the whole class. The class was routinely shocked at the full 1-to-10 range for almost all statements. When I asked what they thought the purpose of the activity was, I usually heard, “I can hardly believe, with most of us from one region and all of us planning to enter the same profession, that we are so extremely varied on these issues.”

Managing Discussion
Discussion, especially about controversial topics, can help both kids and teachers develop expressive language and listening and responding skills. School and other counselors have skills that can help people involved in bullying, highly engaged and socially marginal kids, and kids from all sides of town talk together and find common ground about “growing up.” A teacher and a school counselor co-facilitating a large- or small-group discussion about social or other developmental challenges can help the teacher move from a teaching to a mostly listening mode. When kids with widely differing backgrounds and opinions can talk comfortably about common struggles, the school climate may become more harmonious. Intentional whole-classroom discussion of hot-button topics can have the same result. Opinions of middle and high school students in a classroom are likely to differ as much as those of the counselors-in-training in my class. Classrooms are a great place to learn to embrace that complexity.

One set of suggestions for moderating intense discussions about hot-button topics follows here:

  1. Explain (if the issue has already been named spontaneously but the discussion has not yet progressed), “This will be a great opportunity for you to listen and express opinions respectfully. I expect that you’ll disagree with each other. This is good practice for the rest of your life.”
  2. If a heated exchange occurs, hold your hand up, palm forward, and say, “Okay. There are strong opinions and emotions here.” Ask for volunteers in the room to describe what they have witnessed—without expressing opinions about the content and without judging any of the discussants or their opinions as “bad” or “good.”
  3. Then ask a volunteer who was not involved in the heated exchange to summarize the content of both sides, if there were in fact opposing views.
  4. Perhaps ask one of the most passionate discussants to tell someone with an opposing view what they heard that person say—and then ask that person to do the same.
  5. Then invite the class to continue the discussion. If contentiousness and anger arise, repeat steps 2 through 4 above.
  6. At the end of the discussion, ask the class for observations of the discussion process (not of the end result). Consider asking them to rate on a 1-to-10 scale how well the class did with respectful listening, respectful speaking, avoiding judgment, contributing thoughtfully, being thought-provoking, and having high-quality discussion.
  7. To foster expressive language, ask students to name one or more feelings they experienced during the discussion.
  8. Ask for a volunteer to make a final summary statement. What happened? What were the challenges? What was interesting?
  9. Thank the class for participating in what was important practice for listeners and participants alike. Compliment them appropriately—referring to specific moments. Students need to know that disagreement does not need to be scary, hurtful, disrespectful, or loud. Remind them that practice and poise can help them avoid those negatives.
  10. Introduce to students the idea of “embracing complexity,” which can help them navigate complex adolescent and adult worlds. Students should assume that disagreement will often be available for further practice. Being able to stay poised, level-headed, and not focused on “winning” will be an asset.

Jean PetersonJean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books, journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.

how and why to get students talkingEssential Guide To Talking With Gifted TeensJean is the author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking and The Essential Guide for Talking with Gifted Teens.


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