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What to tell kids about the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Illustration depicting virtual school attendance.
Charlotte Fu

As students return to classes on Monday after a weeklong break, some may need some additional support from teachers in light of current events.

Olena Prokopovych, a political science professor at Nazareth College, is from Ukraine. Her twin 12-year-old sons last visited their family in Ukraine last summer.

On Friday, Prokopovych was on the phone with their grandmother in her hometown, Chernihiv, near the border with Belarus.

“My mother reported today that three houses have been destroyed by shells, and some buildings in our city have been set on fire, and there have been air raids,” Prokopovych said. “So their grandmother is right now, in what is unbelievably, incredibly, outrageously a warzone.”

Wrapping her own mind around it has been difficult, but she says there are some ways adults can help children make sense of it. Like comparing it to something they might already be familiar with.

“Bullying,” she said. “Using force to attack, possibly humiliate and hurt weaker party. Because children are now more attuned to this terrible phenomenon of bullying, they can better grasp what is involved between these two countries, one of which is an aggressor.”

Prokopovych said that another way is to point to lessons from Ukrainians who have had to make difficult decisions in a short amount of time.

“What do we do to protect our safety in emergencies? People have not panicked but rather developed plans, focusing on how to safeguard their own lives and the lives of others,” she said. “But also, I think it's important to convey to the children that this is an outrage that we have to consider these things. That this is a regrettable necessity.”

Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski said teachers have a responsibility to address questions students might have when significant events happen.

“Especially when unusual global events occur, such as the tragedy in Ukraine right now, and the volatility of the situation,” Urbanski said. “Because as tragic as it has already been, anyone capable of launching an unprovoked war on a neighboring country may be capable of even greater horrors.”

It doesn’t have to be a forced conversation, and it doesn’t have to only involve students whose families may be directly affected, he said.

Urbanski is originally from Poland, which was under Russian control when he left with his family as a teenager. Children are not exempt from being affected by current events, he said.

“This touches not only the Ukraine, Russia issue, but the whole issue of war, and what happens during war,” he said. “Children need to be reassured that adults understand that their first responsibility is to protect them, to protect children.”

If there’s one lesson Prokopovych wants students to learn in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is that democracy cannot taken for granted.

“Democratic societies are precious, but also fragile. And the many grievances that we might have with the process and the outcomes of our democratic governance, pale in comparison to the horrors of authoritarian and totalitarian rule.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.