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How we talk with our kids

Some students may return to the new school year with questions and concerns about the tragedies and injustice they see happening in the world. Education Dept. officials take on the tough issues.

6 min read


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Do we love our kids? Do they know they matter to us? Those were just two of the questions that President Obama asked an audience after meeting with students at a My Brother’s Keeper roundtable last year. They are also the questions that we have been asking ourselves while meeting students across the country. Students who are wrestling with tragedies and injustice need to feel our love and support now more than ever.

On a recent visit to J.J. Hill Montessori School, where Philando Castile was the cafeteria supervisor, the need to reinforce that love was apparent.Students there loved Philando — they called him Mr. Phil — and he loved them right back. When a coworker asked why he was working over the summer, Philando said: “I want to work because I love the kids.”  

Philando’s death and the tragic losses we have seen in Baton Rouge, Dallas, Orlando, and far too many other neighborhoods, have been harrowing for students, families and educators. We have heard from hundreds of young people about how they have been affected by violent images replayed over and over on television and online. Often times, those images magnify the fears that children are already feeling. Although every incident of violence has its own devastating contours, we deeply regret that so many young people have shared that experience. Our hearts are with them.

We have also heard from teachers and school leaders who are wrestling with how best to support students, even as they are still processing these tragedies themselves. Educators work day in and day out to honor the students and families that entrust them to make school a safe and supportive place that helps children achieve their full potential. The relationships they establish with their students are essential for healing our communities. Students who are still learning who they are and how they fit into the world pay a particularly steep price when witnessing and experiencing trauma. Their ability to learn and prepare themselves for a brighter future can be impeded, cognitively, socially and emotionally by the injustice and violence they experience and see in the world.
Part of our job as educators and caring adults is to make school a place where all students can find productive outlets for their emotions in response to the adversity and trauma they experience. But educators do not bear the sole responsibility for helping communities recover or changing systems that perpetuate injustice. To do that, communities must come together across lines of difference to find ways to work better together in support of our children and youth. Educators must work with community leaders, faith-based organizations, youth advocates, families, employers and law enforcement officers to make our neighborhoods safer for all students. By working together, we can “make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share,” as President Obama said at the funeral of slain police officers in Dallas.

The key to progress will be staying in close touch with the young people in our lives. We must ask them how they are doing and work to better understand what they are feeling and what is on their minds. As we listen to them, there are also three things they need to hear from us:

  1. Students first need to hear from us about finding what gives them hope. We know what hopelessness feels like. We both lost our parents at an early age, and struggled through feelings of emptiness and loss. Whatever happens, our children cannot let their dreams give way to a sense of futility. For us, we find hope in the remarkable accomplishments of young people. Students may find hope by expressing themselves artistically or striving athletically, in reading literature, in their own writing, connecting with friends or organizing a peaceful protest. So, we should encourage them to find reasons to be hopeful, as well as opportunities to share their feelings. But, we should also help them realize that they have it in their power to make changes in their own lives, the lives of their families, and in their communities.
  2. The second thing we want all young people to know is that wherever they are, whatever they are going through, there is someone advocating for them. In communities across the country, we meet committed educators, community advocates, mentors and public servants fighting for the right of all students to receive a great education, and make a better life for themselves. We meet law enforcement officials who selflessly protect and serve communities while also volunteering at local youth centers, participating in Police Athletic Leagues or summer youth jobs programs. Students need to know someone is on their side and looking out for them, and that whatever they are going through, wherever they are, we have their back.
  3. Most of all, we want our kids and young people to know: We love you. So many of us are coping with feelings of anger, frustration and grief, and we want all young people to understand the power of love. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” We know that all of us will emerge from this trying time stronger than before. In the meantime, we will be reminding our kids, nieces and nephews, and the students whom we meet across the country that we love them.   

As President Obama reminded us after that youth roundtable, there is nothing more important to the future of our nation than children’s ability to achieve their dreams. So as we work to prepare our kids for the world they live in today, we will not stop fighting to create the world we want for them. In that world, every student has the opportunity to earn an excellent education; in that world, school is a pipeline to possibilities, not to prison; and in that world, students from diverse backgrounds learn and achieve together free from fear of violence and trauma as they prepare to lead our nation. Students themselves are finding ways to help make that vision a reality. As educators, we will continue doing our part to help them achieve their dreams. 

John B. King Jr. is the Secretary of Education at the US Department of Education. James Cole Jr. is the general counsel delegated the duties of the Deputy Secretary of Education.


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