A teaching assistant explains why she thinks teaching staff shouldn’t shy away from discussing current affairs with young pupils

By Siobhan Woodhouse

Children are never too young to start learning about the world around them. I soon learned this after discussing topics such as the war in Syria and the EU referendum with children as young as six. Friends, family and even teachers recoiled in horror as I talked about these discussions – how could I possibly discuss horrific terrorist attacks or the plight of refugees with children so young?

I think the biggest hurdle for teaching assistants (TAs) – and any other teaching staff – is their own fear. I always question whether I am informed enough. What if I don't know the answer to a question? Is this appropriate for a child to be discussing?

That's probably why I never begin the discussion myself. Sometimes a book starts it for you. I will never forget a consultant once telling me of a time she read The Bed and Breakfast Star to a class of privately educated girls who questioned whether people really live as the main character did in the story. For those who aren't familiar, the main character, Elsa, lives with her mother and violent step-father in a B&B. She has no fixed abode and leads a rather unsettled life that some of the children you work may experience. Books really do open people up to another world so it's normal that children will want to follow that up with you.

The second part to having constructive chats about difficult topics is just that – you need to ensure you're approachable and compassionate. You're probably all these things anyway, but it is important that the children recognise this. Try and build as many strong, individual relationships with children as you can. It is all too easy let a shy, quiet children keep themselves to themselves. Bring them further out of their shell and let them know you're a safe person. Show an interest in their hobbies and what they've done outside of school. If they're not willing to share this with you, talk about your own first and ask them for their opinions.

Other times, Newsround starts the talk for me. The show is short and pithy – a 10-minute slot at the beginning of the day or just after lunch is plenty of time to watch the programme and generate a discussion with children. It can even be incorporated into spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) for more in-depth conversations.

When it comes to staying informed and explaining complex issues, Newsround is a real life saver. It breaks down any difficult topic perfectly and makes it accessible for a majority of the children. It also gives me a model – or an idea at least – of how to present the issue to the children and the correct tone to take. If I am honest, I don't think I would have even dreamt of tackling events such as the refugee crisis without it.

Once we have watched the news, I then ask my children to empathise with children in these situation as this can help them grasp a greater understanding without necessarily having to go into detail. "If you were a refugee, how might you feel?" "Why do some people think we shouldn't accept refugees? Do you think this is right?"

When talking about topics such the wars in Syria and Iraq, I think it is important to disassociate terrorists from any religion, race or creed they claim to represent. My school has an excellent SMSC scheme and teaches extremism by removing its current association to Islam. Even just asking, "If somebody says people with brown skin cannot go to school anymore, is that an extremist view?" can help broaden children's minds. Once the concept of an extremism is grasped, you can begin to relate it to what is happening today and explain how extremist groups are not representative views of a majority. This can be done through personal anecdotes or even relating it to famous people. For example, you could ask: "The Mayor of London is a Muslim, do you think that means he has the same views as Isis? What might he think about this group?"

Don't be afraid to ask children to offer their opinion, after all this is an enormous opportunity to teach children how to express themselves in a careful and mature way. Opening the floor up to the children has led to many what I would call "facepalm moments" and some very outrageous comments. In fact, I hold my breath every time one of these discussions begins.

But it is important to recognise that these opinions and comments are probably shaped by what a child has picked up outside school. I try not to scold a child who has said something offensive and instead try to explain that while think that, it can hurt others because of X. If you are worried, it is also worthwhile catching the child later on, away from their peers, so you can investigate a little more.

Offering children to give their opinion can lead to fascinating debates and extremely proud moments. I've found that these are moments where no student is defined by an LA or HA tag. Any child can give a sensible opinion when they are provided with basic facts and presented with both sides of an argument.

It is really important that you try to not show your own bias as children pick up on this and tend to say what they think you want to hear, rather than forming their own opinion. As a staunch pro-remainer in the EU referendum, I found discussing Brexit most difficult. But Newsround broke it down perfectly and a pro-Brexit colleague helped me understand the other side. It was a great example to the children to see two adults who had differing opinions but could still get on with one another.

Do not shy away from discussing these difficult things with children. I can name many eight year olds who understand the arguments for and against leaving the EU better than some adults. The sooner children understand the world around them, the better they can form their opinions and create sensible arguments.

Children are not incapable of grasping basic arguments or triggers of a certain situation, however they can only do this if you let them.

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