Talking About Terrorism

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How can we help children cope with bad news?

One of the most difficult things any teacher will have to do is talk about terrorism.

I remember vividly talking to my Year 5 class about the 9/11 attacks in 2001. I was hopelessly out of my depth.

There is no script to follow after a terrorist attack and there is no ‘right way’ of going about it but children need support and the school community have to work hard together to provide the cohesion and solidarity desperately needed to stabilise and direct children’s thinking.

Stay Safe

I don’t offer a ‘recipe’ for what anyone should do – your responses are best discussed as a staff and decided together. However, every school at least should have a major incident response plan to bad news and assemblies are crucial in gathering everyone together to provide structure and consistency – these require great tact and thought and are are often best delivered by more than one member of staff too.

My suggestions about how to approach the incredibly complex subject of terrorism are just that….ideas:

1. Find out what children know

Children will come into school knowing about an incident often from a variety of sources. Listen carefully and find out what they already know, assess their understanding and let this guide your response, discussions and questions.

2. Keep to the facts

Describe what has happened using only the facts known to us. Avoid conjecture and media speculation and be extremely vigilant of fake news that children may have heard or seen via social media. Describe what we know, not what we don’t.

3. Make it age-appropriate

The details and images in the media are almost entirely targeted at an adult audience so limit what you say and think very carefully about any images you may show. Don’t go into a lot of detail – it is unnecessary. Keep it simple and find trusted sources devoted to children’s news such as Newsround from the BBC and children’s newspaper’s like First News and Picture News. ‘Translate’ the news to the level of the children.

4. Reassure…lots

We need to reassure children as much as we possibly can but we mustn’t promise anything. Remind children that terrorist attacks are still extremely rare events but life can never be 100% safe or protected, e.g. illness, accidents, but reassure them that there are many people working hard at keeping us safe such as the police, armed forces, government etc.

5. Banish stereotypes

One of our greatest responsibilities as teachers is to quash hatred, challenge untruths and overwhelm any thinking that demonises a particular religion, race and creed. A torrent of negative stories over the years has led to Islamaphobia and Muslimophobia fuelled by prejudice, fear and racism. We need to be alert for any views children may express that are closed to diversity whilst being proactive to celebrate different cultures, communities and identities.

6. Talk and talk again

Terrorism is a difficult topic that needs to be revisited so that misinformation doesn’t spread. Talking about incidents more than once helps children make more sense of what has happened, provokes more questions but also offer more opportunities for providing reassurance.

7. Hold a minute’s silence

In assembly and in class, this is a very powerful way to remember those people caught up in an attack and to think about those who were killed and injured, the emergency services, families and friends. We have lit candles in the past and signed a book of condolence.

8. Invite outside speakers

Inviting community leaders and the Police into school can help provide different perspectives, dispel myths and falsehoods and provide clarity and meaning.

9. Provide options

Children need support beyond school as they may not always be able to talk freely at home or get the help they need. Point children in the direction of Childline and point parents in the direction of NSPCC for advice about what they can do.


10. Don’t ignore

One thing is a given: terrorism needs to be discussed in school and paying lip-service to it or pushing it to one side in order to protect children could breed more confusion, fear and resentment. Leading psychiatrists urge us to be honest and open about terrorist attacks.

11. Model resilience

Children look to us to model good coping skills and resilience. Be optimistic for the future and display positivity by drawing attention to all the goodness that surrounds us and how we can empower and enable each other. Focus on all the acts of kindness and support people gave to each other after the attacks seen in Manchester and London.

12. Run, Hide, Tell

Children also need to know what to do in the unlikely event they were caught up in an incident. Scotland Yard have advised that children should be taught the same message as adults as featured in their recent Run, Hide, Tell campaign. We cannot and should not shield children from messages that could save their lives.



The above suggestions may fit into your existing policies or serve as useful discussion points for creating or revising new policies such as those devoted to ‘British Values & Challenging Radicalisation, Extremism and Terrorism’.

Other places to find advice:

Winston’s Wish, the charity for bereaved children offers advice for teachers, parents and carers – take a look at their article – ‘Responding to children affected by the media coverage of the incident in Westminster’.

A generic framework for discussing a terrorist attack can be found on the PSHE Association website – they also have advice for discussing a terrorist attack with children in the primary phases.

See Coping after a traumatic event published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

See also Children’s Responses to Terrorism from the The National Association of Social Workers and the advice from North Dakota State University, Talking to children about terrorism.

One thought on “Talking About Terrorism

  1. Great article! Happy to see educators are recognizing the importance of being prepared to discuss these difficult issues with their children.
    Our platform, Operation250, provides students, parents, and educators with the resources to learn about terrorism and online safety in a way that is specifically tailored to their needs.
    Educators- we have two page printable lesson plans to help you get the conversation started in the classroom!

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