Supportive and Sensitive Approaches to Teaching
When approaching topics that require sensitivity, educators can use these general guidelines as a starting point:
- Begin with the curriculum expectations and focus on the key learnings’ of the overall expectations.
- Ensure that children and youth know that school Codes of Conduct guidelines and Human Rights policies are in place to govern how everyone should act and behave toward others in schools and in public spaces.
- Ensure that group discussions respect, protect, and promote the sharing of individual views (i.e., diverse views are expected and encouraged).
- Think carefully about sharing personal information or views. Educators’ opinions carry great weight with learners.
- Use interactive discussion rather than direct instruction or lecture-style approaches.
- Remind learners that exploring these topics should lead to the development and growth of their understanding (i.e., understanding their own thoughts and values, as well as those of others).
- Reinforce that classrooms are not platforms for any one individual (learner or educator) to dominate with one perspective.
- Consider the values, experiences, and backgrounds of the learners, based on their stages of development or social identities, when planning for instruction (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, class, ability, etc.).
- Remind learners of the implication/understanding/sensitivity to power and privilege.
- Discuss what is confidential and what is not.
Teaching young people to think critically, respond respectfully, and “take a step back” can avoid situations where they may act on impulse or respond emotionally in ways that can exclude those around them and create barriers to discussion.47 When educators model this approach, young people learn and benefit as educators guide discussion in a productive manner. By creating a classroom atmosphere of trust, validation, and inclusion, learners feel valued as members of the group who can offer their own ideas, thoughts, and analysis in working toward a shared understanding of different topic areas. During classroom discussions, some learners may choose to take the greatest risk in revealing aspects of themselves to others; however, not all learners initially have the self-confidence to do this. The extent to which they take risks is demonstrated by asking questions in front of their peers, expressing opinions, disagreeing with one another, and analyzing their own positions on topics. Learners’ willingness to take these risks is built from previous successful experiences gained by participation in learning strategies that encourage many different views to be shared openly and honestly.
For educators, learning as much as they can about the topics they will be teaching and about different support services and resources for learners can help to prepare them for responding to learners' questions and meeting their needs.
A number of resources are available in schools and communities to provide additional information and support for learners (and educators) such as:
- Guidance counsellors
- School social workers
- Public health staff
- Clergy, school chaplains, spiritual leaders
- Child and youth workers
- Educational assistants
- Child psychologists
- Child welfare practitioners
- Settlement workers
- Culturally reflective services to meet the needs of diverse groups in the community
Additional support for educators is also available from school colleagues, board staff, provincial and national organizations, and accurate and reliable websites.
Reflective Questions to Consider
- Do I consider and respect the diverse values, experiences, and backgrounds and identities of young people?
- Is/are the resource(s) age- and developmentally appropriate?
- Are the scenarios, activities, and responses age- and developmentally appropriate?
- Are diverse learners reflected in the scenarios, activities, and resources?
What Is My Bias?
When addressing topics that can be challenging to teach, all learners need to feel supported in a stable, non-judgmental learning environment where they are free to learn about and explore their own personal beliefs, and the personal and social views of others. It is important for educators to be aware of and plan how to manage conflicting opinions in the course of classroom discussions, to ensure all learners have the opportunity to experience an inclusive environment where their thoughts and values are respected regardless of ancestry, culture, ethnicity, body size, sex, physical or intellectual ability, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or other similar factors.
With personal reflection, educators are better able to be aware of personal bias and respectful about how they articulate their own perspectives and respond to the perspectives of others. Educators can also model appropriate behaviour for learners to follow, providing learners the opportunity to respectfully participate in discussion that promotes the development and growth of learners' understanding.
To examine their personal beliefs and identify potential bias that they may have about their learners, educators can ask themselves some or all the following reflective and guiding questions:
- What personal biases shape my emotional reaction to the content of this particular topic?
- What experiences have shaped my perspectives?
- What assumptions do I make about learning and teaching about this topic?
- Do some of these assumptions come from my own biases?
- What steps will I take to support my learners so that my personal biases and beliefs do not interfere with my ability to respond professionally to a question a student poses?
- How will I ensure the content of the curriculum is professionally and fully addressed if the topic challenges my personal beliefs?
- How do I select resources with an awareness of the bias and perspective not being evident?
Suggestions for Instruction
After asking these questions, educators should analyze their responses and identify any areas where their potential bias might be disruptive to creating an open and inclusive learning environment. While it is not expected that educators will change their opinions on certain topics, they do have a responsibility to encourage learners to explore and reflect on their own thoughts without feeling pressured to follow those of their educator.
It is important for educators to understand that some learners might have conflicting understandings in relation to these topics that might contradict those being shared in the classroom.
Learners need to feel supported if these topic areas have personal significance, without the fear that they will be ostracized by other learners or their educator. It is important for educators to be proactive in examining these reflective and guiding questions to have optimal understanding of themselves and their learners before examining any of the topics in a learning environment. Once this is achieved, it is the responsibility of the educator to promote open discussion with learners by providing a safe, positive, and confidential (if necessary) environment for them.
 Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Supporting minds: an educator’s guide to promoting students’ mental health and well-being.Retrieved from http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/ministry/publications/reports/mental_health2011/mentalhealth_rep2011.pdf
 McVey, G.L., Walker, S. K., Beyers, J., Harrison, H., Russell-Mayhew, M. S., & Simkins, S. (2013). Integrating weight bias awareness and mental health promotion into obesity prevention delivery: A public health pilot study. CDC; Journal: Preventing Chronic Disease, 10, Article ID 12_0185