Children and young people know that climate change is changing lives, environmental patterns and the future.
Man-made climate change is changing the intensity of the likelihood of extreme weather events and has contributed to a surge in disasters over the past 20 years, incurring significant personal and economic costs. In 2021, many people across Canada experienced the impact of weather-related events related to climate change, including devastating floods, landslides, heat domes, wildfires, thawing permafrost and hurricanes.
We examined existing research on understanding climate change in relation to adolescents and children and their mental health. Our focus is on learning how to best equip young people to tackle climate change and envision their futures amid diverse societal challenges.
While the impacts of climate change on global communities are undeniable, these impacts also disproportionately affect people who experience social, structural and systemic inequalities and exclusion.
Our early research has shown the importance of going beyond traditional curriculum approaches in schools.
We hope to help develop innovative ways to teach children and young people about climate change in a way that is trauma informed and aimed at building resilience in children and young people. This includes linking scientific approaches with art-based methods.
We have also begun surveying educators in British Columbia and reviewing the province’s curriculum to assess how BC is performing and what could be improved on best practices in climate change education.
issue of intergenerational justice
Climate change is a social and intergenerational justice issue that disproportionately affects children and young people who have inherited the problem.
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Given the impact that climate-related disasters can have on their lives, youth and children also have special needs in climate adaptation, mitigation and recovery. Children also want to be actively and meaningfully involved in the response to climate change, but often don’t get the opportunity – and when they do act, their efforts can go unnoticed.
When young people perceive that adults are not taking significant action on climate change, and when their voices go unheard, these experiences can help young people lose hope for their future. This is especially true in a media-saturated world, where memories of climate catastrophes and misinformation permeate the news, social media, and communities around them.
Read more: Pupils become detectives in the school’s boiler room to assess the risks of climate change
The impacts of climate change, and youth and children’s responses to them, are a constant reminder to educators, parents or guardians, regional planners, and healthcare providers that climate change is an urgent issue that requires immediate attention. How we communicate about climate change and imagine possible social responses to this common crisis has a lasting impact on children and young people today.
Need for “reasonable hope”
For their development and well-being, children need information that both acknowledges the very disturbing realities we face and empowers them to take action to transform that future.
Drawing on the thoughts of psychologist Lee Daniel Kravetz, we believe this could be termed “reasonable hope” – a view based on a realistic understanding of circumstances while cultivating hope by building confidence in our ability to play a role to play in shaping the results . Regarding climate change, this approach would encourage young people to learn how to recognize and connect with the strengths and assets of their communities, and develop tools to design and build sustainable solutions.
This agency can counteract the despair emanating from the climate crisis. An important way to promote this ability to act is to link scientific approaches with artistic methods. For children and young people, art is not only a powerful and accessible vehicle to communicate about how climate change is affecting their lives and sense of the future, but also a creative way to explore new metaphors, narratives and design principles for building a more hopeful to develop future.
Read more: STEM learning should involve students’ minds, hands, and hearts
Responses to climate change
Young people have different reactions to the impact of the climate crisis on their future. These reactions include stress or anxiety-related reactions that negatively impact sleep, ability to concentrate, and relationships; feel that the future is not in their hands, resulting in planning for the future (e.g. considering upskilling) being given less priority or committing to taking action to combat climate change.
Read more: Child Career Counseling Is Our Best Hope For Climate Change
Educators play an important role in helping youth and children manage their future stresses and stay connected to one another in kind and compassionate ways. Paying attention to both is crucial when push comes to shove.
Aside from stress, some children and young people experience the effects of climate change as traumatic. The Manitoba Trauma Information Center defines trauma as “a single experience or prolonged repeated or multiple experiences that completely overwhelms the individual’s ability to manage or integrate the ideas and emotions associated with that experience.” Research shows that trauma-informed practice that builds resilience is helpful when speaking to young people about climate change.
A British Columbia Department of Education document setting out key principles and strategies for promoting mental health in schools states that using a trauma-informed lens means “integrating understanding of past and current trauma experiences into all aspects of school life.” .
From curriculum guidelines to teaching approaches, schools must seek to be aware of the historically and culturally specific ways in which students are vulnerable to both climate trauma and other forms of trauma that result from intersecting forms of injustice and exclusion .
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how severe and lasting changes in children’s social worlds, such as prolonged periods of social distancing and school closures, can alter children’s development, educational prospects, and life chances—opportunities that people have “Participation in the socially created economic or cultural ‘goods’ … in a particular society,” as sociologist Anthony Giddens explains.
Extreme weather events create the opportunity for similar personal and social upheaval, along with significant impacts on the natural environment, communities and built infrastructure. However, meaningfully involving children (age and stage appropriate) in shaping change can foster a sense of agency and resilience in the age of climate crisis.
We look forward to continuing to understand how educators, parents, and role models are teaching about climate change in resilience-building ways, and what insights this can provide for future directions in climate change education.