Talking About Tough Topics: Tips for Educators

Teachers talking in a meeting

Here are some tips for talking about tough topics when they come up in the classroom. This article is part of Tips for ELL Educators: Navigating Tough Topics in the Classroom.

Photo credit: Photo by Allison Shelley

It is very likely that complex, controversial topics will come up in the classroom, either in response to current events or as part of planned instruction.

Here are some tips for navigating these conversations, particularly with your English language learners (ELLs).

Before Reading: Reflection Questions

  • What are some topics you may be concerned about discussing in the classroom?
  • What skills do I want students to have in dealing with difficult discussions?
  • What can I do to prepare for difficult moments or controversy?
  • How do I respond to stress and how can I manage stress in the heat of the moment?

Being Prepared

Find out what your resources are

Ask a trusted colleague, administrator, and your local teacher’s union what kind of resources are available to help you navigate difficult conversations in the classroom, both from a content perspective and a personnel perspective. Talk with your administrator about successes or problems in the past. Starting the conversation early will help you when a tough topic arises.

Brainstorm possible responses

Consider how you might respond when a tough topic comes. What are some options you have? What can you do to give students more practice in discussion?

Responding to Current Events

Consider the impact on students

Students may vary in their desire or interest in discussing current events, as well as their own emotional response to the events. This is especially critical to remember since ELLs and immigrant students bring their own histories and perspectives to current events that may differ from other students and they may have experienced trauma. Students may have strong feelings related to events that are in some way connected to students’ prior experiences. In addition, students may be strongly impacted by events that are unfolding in their home countries, such as a natural disaster, political news, unrest, or other significant events.

If you teach students who are impacted by a global crisis:

  • Do not put them on the spot to comment on current events.
  • Let them know that you are available to talk if needed.
  • Talk with family liaisons or others who know their community well to find out how they are responding to current events and what kind of support the school might offer.
  • Consider pulling a team together of family liaisons, parents, and mental health professionals to discuss culturally appropriate forms of support.

If this is an event you will be covering in your instruction:

  • First, consider whether the topic is appropriate for discussion in the classroom.
  • Don’t hesitate to create some space. For example, after a major event, you could give students a chance to write in journals privately and tell them that the class will be returning to this topic after you’ve had time to read their journals and create a plan.
  • Do some research to see what resources are available from trusted organizations.
  • Check in with administrators and your local teachers union for guidance.

If you are discussing these current events in the classroom (either in a planned or unplanned discussion):

  • Remind all students to show respect for each other.
  • Refer back to your guidelines for classroom guidelines and discussion guidelines.
  • Do not put any students on the spot to share their experience.
  • Keep in mind that students will bring multiple perspectives about these events.
  • Ask colleagues for advice and support where needed.

Video: Omar Salem on teaching a social justice class for ELLs

Resources related to current events

Ensure ELLs can fully participate in any lesson or discussion

If you proceed with a discussion or lesson plan, ensure you include ELLs by:

  • considering how the topic might connect to students’ experiences (without making those connections explicit)
  • teaching important background knowledge, vocabulary, and academic language
  • scaffolding the lesson for various levels of proficiency

Teaching Social Studies and History to ELLs

Responding to current events

Teaching big topics

Student action

Topics in the News


Talking about immigration may cause extreme anxiety for students. At the same time, immigrant students may welcome the chance to discuss a topic that affects them so directly.

  • If you are planning a lesson plan related to immigration (even if in a historic context), proceed with care and extensive planning.
  • Recognize that you are not an immigration expert.
  • Tell students you are open to their experiences, but any information that students share about immigration policies must be informed by research.
  • Consider talking privately with your immigrant students beforehand on whether they feel comfortable with the topic.
  • Do not put students on the spot or ask them to share their experience directly.
  • Never refer to a student’s immigration status publicly or privately.
  • Remember that all students have a right to a public K-12 education regardless of immigration status.
  • Include immigration as a characteristic that is protected against discrimination and bias.
  • Be mindful of your language and consider developing a shared list of helpful terms and vocabulary: refugee, asylum, “undocumented” (instead of “illegal”), etc.
  • Remind the class that students can discuss the merits of immigration policy while maintaining a respectful tone about the people involved.


The COVID-19 pandemic

It is important to proceed with sensitivity in discussions of the pandemic. Students may have experienced illness, loss, hardship, or other challenging/traumatic experiences. Keep in mind that your students’ experiences will have varied greatly based on their circumstances at home. Learn more about some of the particular challenges ELL and immigrants have faced. For guidance on discussing topics related to the pandemic, see these resources from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

If you are considering tying the pandemic to learning, consider a student-led inquiry- or project-based approach, such as the activity teacher Keisha Davidson describes below.

Addressing Tough Moments

Sometimes, despite your best intentions and careful planning, classroom conversations move into difficult territory. Here are some strategies for managing those moments, along with some recommended resources. For example, ESOL specialist Manny Gomez writes, "I use this continuum to frame conversations and find solutions with all ELs in class."

Before stepping in, ask yourself if students can handle it

Consider whether you think the students in the room have the tools they need to work through the discussion. They may surprise you and speak up for the class’s shared values.

Stop disrespectful or hurtful behavior and speech immediately

If the conversation is moving into the territory of insulting language, stereotypes, or hate speech, or if students in the room are personally troubled or offended by the direction of the discussion, stop the conversation immediately. Your students will be watching your response. Some phrases you might use in response are:

  • “Let’s pause and remember our class guidelines. We want everyone to feel safe in our classroom. I’m betting that not everyone feels safe right now.”
  • “Are you aware you said something hurtful when you said that?”
  • “What did you mean by that?” Follow up with “Tell me more” or “Help me understand.”
  • “Using that word doesn’t help others feel safe or accepted here.” (Learning for Justice)

Be calm, consistent, and firm

  • Keep students’ well-being at the center of your attention.
  • Stay open to points of view that differ than your own, and don't escalate the situation based on your own feelings and fears.
  • Don’t single students out, especially based on their identity.
  • If you have established shared guidelines or values for your classroom, remind students of those guidelines.
  • Reiterate that while everyone has a right to expression in the classroom, that right is accompanied by the responsibility to do so respectfully.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence.
  • Don’t hesitate to shut the conversation down if needed. You have veto power.
  • You may wish to take a break and have students turn to a journal writing activity where they can process what has been said privately.
  • Use your safety valves — opportunities to stop, take a breath, reflect, and perhaps share personal reactions after some time has passed. These might include the use of graphic organizers or brief activities for addressing stress. If there is some tension, use these tools as a way to pause and reset.
  • Determine whether to continue the lesson or pause it until the next day and move onto something else.

Kristina Robertson writes, "Try not to underestimate the value of listening and accepting silence. I find many teachers are afraid of silence or challenging moments because they don't want to lose control or feel the need to rescue students."

Reflect on the incident

Return the next day to debrief the situation after you have prepared a protocol to respectfully discuss what happened and how it made people feel. Consider a restorative circle approach. It’s important that students understand how to protect their community, support each other, and return from a negative experience.

  • Consider whether you have created a safe space.
  • Use this as an opportunity to revisit or establish a classroom community based on respect.
  • Take a step back and remind yourself of the objectives of the lesson — what did you want to accomplish with this lesson? How can you get back on that track?
  • Discuss your concerns with a trusted colleague who can give you constructive feedback.

Don’t minimize students’ fears or feelings

When students share their concerns, fears, or feelings, don't dismiss them or assure them that "everything will be fine." You may wish to follow up with them privately after class and express your support or offer ways for students to express themselves anonymously, such as posting sticky notes on a board.

If students are withdrawing or acting out, take a step back and ask why

Rather than putting students on the spot to try to engage them, ask yourself if this conversation may be making them uncomfortable or angry. Follow up with them individually after class to check in and see if there is a way to address their feelings. Remember that every behavior is a form of communication.

Following a difficult conversation, keep eyes and ears open around the school

Students are likely to repeat what has happened if things got heated or tense. Keep an eye out to make sure that this is not creating an uncomfortable situation for other students or leading to any bullying. You may wish to give your administrators a heads up about the situation.

Determine whether you need to…

…meet privately with students

If students indicate that they are upset or personally impacted by difficult events that are part of classroom discussion or by the discussion itself, check in with the students privately after class. Reassure them that they can speak to you or a guidance counselor whenever it’s needed and ask if there is something that you or the class can do to help provide some support.
You may also need to meet with students who engaged in the hurtful comments or behavior. Keep in mind that there may be more to the story.

...alert social workers or counselors about the incident

You may need to alert a social worker/counselor about what has happened and ask them to meet with the student(s) when you realize that the situation requires someone with more expertise or the situation has been escalated and requires mediation or intervention.

…address the incident the following day

Would it be helpful for students to discuss and process the events of the previous day, or is it more productive to continue on with the lesson? If students are likely to bring it up themselves, it may be worthwhile to spend some time on it as a class before moving on.

…alert administrators or families of what occurred

You may need to notify administrators of what has happened. Ask your administrators for guidance on next steps as needed and whether families need to be notified, or follow-up communication shoud come after students have shared what has happened with their families. You can also talk to your building union representative if you have additional questions.

Note: It's important that teachers be clear with students that if they tell them something about someone hurting them or them hurting themselves (or wanting to) then the teacher needs to report it. Teachers can do the reporting anonymously; however, it is always a possibility that parents will know who reported it and there will be repercussions in the school relationship (parents pull students out or ask for change of classroom).

Defusing a Power Struggle

Despite all of your best efforts, you still might find yourself in a power struggle with a student. Susan Lafond suggests the following approach:

When students attempt to engage other students or adults in a power struggle, they extend “hooks” meant to lure the person into a negative cycle of behavior. A hook may be:

  • verbal (words or language the student knows will upset the person)
  • non-verbal (a “look” or a gesture)
  • an action (e.g. “playing” to an audience to gain allies)

To avoid being pulled into the student’s intended cycle of hostility, there are a number of actions you can take.

1. Recognize and ignore hooks.
2. Respond to students calmly and confidently.

  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Maintain privacy and proximity, keeping the situation between you and the student.
  • Use any preferred strategy to remain calm, e.g. counting to 10, taking slow, deep breaths, etc.

3. Actively listen to the student.

  • Try and see the student’s point of view.
  • Look for the “brighter, positive” aspects of the student’s behavior.
  • Use defusing statements, such as ‘Let’s take a five minute break’, ‘Let’s table this discussion for tomorrow’ or ‘Let’s all take a deep breath.’

4. Recognize the situation and what is happening. Let the student know when the situation is escalating and what the risks are if this should continue, including the impact on other students, the classroom community, and other consequences resulting from classroom or school rules.

5. Select an acceptable alternative to the escalating behavior.

  • Walk away.
  • Take a cooling-off period — for student and/or adult — with the discussion to be continued.
  • Give student a “choice”: behavior change or ending the activity, or if the situation escalates, removal from the classroom.
  • Seek help and support, if needed.
  • Offer the student the opportunity to reflect on the interaction privately in a journal or in a follow-up conversation with you or another colleague. While the student may not wish to engage with you or anyone else, some extra time and attention may provide an opportunity for further discussion or explanation about an issue that is troubling the student.

What To Say When You’re Confronted

Using Defusing Statements

What we say when confronted with outbursts of hostility or aggression from students can determine the resolution of the situation — whether it is resolved quickly and calmly, or whether the conflict is escalated. Look for opportunities to say, “Yes, and…” to demonstrate that you can accept some of what the student is saying and you want to move in a different direction. The statements below are examples of adult responses that do not “buy into” disruptive student behaviors:

  • “What you’re saying may be true. I care about what you have to say, though it’s hard for me to hear you when you use disrespectful words.”
  • “I understand what you’re saying. I see things differently. Let’s talk about our differences with a teacher or counselor.”
  • “I’m disappointed you’re choosing to use such hostile words. It makes me feel I have to defend myself. We can find a solution if we use respectful words.”

Give kids a situation and let them role play. The idea is to practice using the language so when the time comes they can return to this experience and use what they practiced. So often we have a visceral response and always do what we have always done (which is ineffective). By creating a “new memory” through practice, when the situation occurs, the students have a better chance of using the diffusing statements in the heat of the moment.

Closing Thoughts

You won’t be able to anticipate all of the challenges, events, or topics that you and your class will face. However, the more prepared you are, and the stronger your class community is, and the more successfully you will navigate these difficult moments and discussions when they arise. By tuning into your students’ own experiences and perspectives, you are also more likely to create powerful moments of connection and meaning — moments that can serve to empower as well as educate.

After Reading: Reflection Questions

  • What are your big takeaways from the article?
  • What's a step you can take in the near future to prepare for difficult conversations?
  • What's an issue this article raises that you would like to further explore?


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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