How to Successfully Teach about Climate Change

In our globalized and rapidly changing world, it has become increasingly important that students leave school equipped to address global challenges such as climate change. But global issues are complicated and many can induce anxiety in children. So how can we talk to students about climate change without suppressing their desire to learn more and take action?

The Washington Post recently ran an article by university professor Dianna Liverman discussing the importance of tone and framework when presenting “depressing” topics to students. We need to talk to our students about contemporary issues, but we must do so in the right way. This post provides general tips for addressing climate change in your classroom for three different grade bands: early elementary, upper elementary, and high school. If you teach middle school students, you may want to consider a blend of upper elementary and high school tactics.

Teaching Early Elementary Students about Climate Change

When working with young learners it is important to focus less on the topic of climate change and more on strengthening their relationship with the environment. Students should develop an understanding of basic environmental processes so when they are ready to discuss climate change, they have developed an appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Reading books about forests, oceans, plants, or animals is another way to spark students’ interest in nature. Caring for a class garden or taking students on a field trip to a zoo or nature preserve also allow students the opportunity to experience positive interactions with nature. When a student asks about a serious topic like climate change, it is important to respond with short and reassuring answers. Here, the goal is to not make the child feel the burden is theirs to carry. Teachers can diffuse fear and anxiety by explaining to the child that adults are working hard to solve the problem.

Teaching Upper Elementary Students about Climate Change

Upper elementary students are able to think more abstractly than their younger peers and may be ready to learn about current events and climate change. Of course, it is up to the teacher to gauge whether or not students are truly ready to engage in serious dialogue. Students at this age may pick up accurate and inaccurate information from peers and adults; therefore, it is important to address any areas of misunderstanding or confusion. This means being well versed in the topic yourself! One way to address misunderstanding is to have students to ask questions about what they do not know or would like to know. Let the students guide the discussion. Do not overbear them with troubling information they may not be ready for. Instead, address concerns in a solutions-oriented way. Similar to young learners, focus on current efforts to solve climate issues as a way to prevent students from feeling they carry the sole burden of solving the problem. Stay positive. Inspire students to be part of the solution at school. Encourage your class to recycle, brainstorm ways to reduce energy consumption and consider creating a more eco-friendly classroom.

Teaching High School Students about Climate Change

Traditional secondary discussions on climate change focus on the consequences (actual and projected) of environmental degradation. Teachers often present students with troubling statistics to shock them out of complacency.  Unfortunately, this approach may have the adverse effect. Professor Liverman experienced this very phenomenon while teaching Environmental Studies at the University of Arizona. Liverman found that many of her students deemed the future of our planet as “hopeless.” Some began referring to the class as “Environmental Depression.” Upset by the negative culture she created, Liverman began to change the way she taught. She began to counterbalance the sobering state of our planet with positive solutions. For example, instead of focusing on pollution and land degradation, she chose to focus her energy on the transformative influences of conservationists Muir, Leopold, and Carson. Her students responded positively with more students leaving class empowered to change the state of the environment and feeling hopeful. You can replicate Dr. Liverman’s teaching strategy by having students research CFC reduction efforts, the modern environmental movement, and the personal choices they can make to reduce their carbon footprint.

In summary, although we employ different age-appropriate strategies, the goal when teaching about climate change is to have student’s understand the consequences of human behaviors while feeling empowered to change them.