Facilitation Tips for Discussing Tough Topics with Students

(Adapted from Engaging Schools’ The Advisory Guide, https://bit.ly/2CR4FiW)

Tough topics arise. They may concern cliques, a drinking-and-driving incident, or national events like mass shootings. Students know what is happening and their concerns can easily show in their behavior or mood. Here are some facilitation tips for hard conversations.

  • Be available; show that you are paying attention. Particularly during crises, whether personal, local, or global, students need to know that adults are available to talk to them and watch out for them.
  • Listen to students and invite their thoughts. When students are concerned or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. Feeling a sense of connection is more reassuring than hearing a sophisticated analysis.
  • Encourage students to generate an array of questions and consider different perspectives. Handling complex events as if they are simple can quickly lead to polarized debates.
  • Many facilitation techniques can help, such as:

Go-rounds, so that everyone, not just the loudest voices, can speak if they so choose

Using wait-time between speakers, or passing out paper for jotting down thoughts

Using a talking-stick or other object – if students are nervous speaking publicly, holding something can help

  • Quickly intervene to defuse personal attacks. Students who already feel anxious may express things strongly, but it doesn’t do them or their peers any good if strong expressions are personal.
  • Check in specifically with students who are especially quiet or acting in uncharacteristic ways. Some students will seek you out if they want to talk; others need proactive encouragement.
  • Reflect on your own views and beliefs and consider to what extent those are appropriate to the conversation. What is most important is showing students that you are listening, not lecturing.


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