Having Conversations about Challenging and Controversial Topics

Talking about topics like prejudice, implicit bias, racism and social injustices helps schools to become supportive and inclusive
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About This Strategy

This strategy provides teachers with the support needed to prepare for and facilitate the different phases of successful conversations about challenging and controversial issues with students and colleagues. It provides guidance about how to transition the conversation itself to being thoughtful about learning and norming activities that can take place prior to conversations. This will help students to have a framework and the mindset to be able to push each other's thinking in a constructive way. This strategy provides techniques to help teachers and students approach challenging conversations about issues of social justice more effectively.

Implementation Steps

  1. Spend time reflecting about topics that you find challenging to discuss with students (i.e. fairness, bullying, prejudice, stereotypes, police shootings, immigration, etc.).

  2. Develop a plan for increasing your comfort level and skill in having difficult conversations with your students. The Jay Smooth TEDx resource linked below can help, as can the Difficult Conversations Self Assessment and the Responding to Strong Emotions Graphic Organizer published by Teaching Tolerance

  3. Make time to ask students to share topics that have come up in class, school, their community or in the news that they'd like to talk about. Have a couple of topics in mind in case students don't share initially (i.e., a rule, policy or practice that students find unfair).

  4. Explore ways to connect the topics students would like to discuss with your content (i.e, in a math class, you can look at percentages/graphs related to the topics students identify), and include the exploration in your lesson plans. The Strategic Education Research Partnership resource listed below has links to interdisciplinary units that may be supportive.

  5. Before engaging in discussion with students about hard topics, make sure to have a discussion about what a conversation about difficult topics should look like and sound like. To learn more about how to introduce this to students, consult the following strategies in the BetterLesson Lab: "Commitment to Respect." "Giving Students a Voice in the Creation and Improvement of Classroom Rules," and the "Y Chart" strategies.

  6. Use these conversations as a foundational structure for discussing difficult topics as they come up throughout the school year.

Facilitating Challenging Conversations in Distance or Blended Learning

It is important that educators create space to have discussions with students even when those conversations happen in a distance or blended format. It may feel challenging to have difficult conversations when students are not in the physical classroom, but creating systems for that process can help teachers and students feel more comfortable discussing difficult topics.

  1. As stated in the classroom-based strategy above, make a list of difficult topics and give students an opportunity to create a list of topics that seem challenging to them as well.

  2. Co-create a list of agreements with your students about having difficult conversations.  Are there special agreements that should be made for online discussions? Some agreements might include the following:

    • Assume positive intent 

    • It is OK to disagree.  All perspectives are valid.

    • Before speaking, pause to ensure others have an opportunity to voice their opinions.

    • Refrain from making statements about individuals.  Discuss ideas.

    • Conversations may end without resolution.

    • Use the hand raise feature in the virtual platform if you have an idea to share.

  3. Since all students may not be comfortable having difficult conversations at a distance, provide other methods for students to share their thoughts. Journaling and quick writes are methods for all students to feel that they have shared their opinions. Be sure to provide verbal or written feedback about ideas students share in writing.

  4. Revisit the agreements each time a conversation takes place.  Update the agreements if the classroom dynamics change at all. For instance, if students move back to the classroom space, discuss ways the agreements may need to be updated.

Special Education Modification

Nedra Massenburg

Working to create a learning environment where teachers can have successful conversations about challenging and controversial issues with students is a tool teachers can use to support and build relationships with students with disabilities.   Building an environment where these students can feel safe and valued enough to have difficult conversations is a building block to helping them form relationships and thus build overall engagement and investment in their learning.

Creating an inclusive learning environment for students to have successful conversations about challenging and controversial issues requires significant executive functioning (task initiation, prioritization, working memory, etc.), emotional regulation, reading, and written expression skills.  In order to support students with disabilities in these areas, consider the following modifications:


  1. Teacher knowledge and acknowledgment of student disabilities is a key way to create an inclusive learning environment. Teachers should consult with special education department administrators or specialized teachers for information on not only specific disability types and needs present in a classroom, but how students want those needs acknowledged during more challenging conversations. See the "Dear Teacher: Heartfelt Advice for Teachers from Students" video in the resource section below.

  2.  For students with disabilities that impair their emotional regulation, it may be appropriate to preview the content of challenging conversations and practice discussion norms in a smaller setting to allow for more feedback and practice before whole group discussions.

  3. Teachers should take care to research resources around disability awareness to ensure that students with impairments see this perspective discussed during these challenging conversations. See the "25 Disability Awareness Activities for Kids of all Ages" and the "Mini-Lesson-Understanding-Disability" resources in the resource section below for more information. 

EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

This strategy provides supports for learning facilitators to engage in authentic and important conversations with learners. English learners benefit from thoughtful planning and guidance in navigating modern issues which may be new to them. 

English learners may be required to engage in all four domains of language, reading, writing, speaking and listening during activities related to this strategy. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:

  1. Activate and/or build background knowledge. Learners with diverse or unknown educational backgrounds may require support to build background knowledge required to engage in challenging conversations, e.g., newcomers may lack knowledge of exemplar implicit bias typical in America. Connect to learners’ personal and socio-cultural experiences. Partner with learners’ language specialist to determine need. See the following resources in the resource section below for more information: "How do you build background knowledge?" "Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement" "Connect Students' Background Knowledge to Content in the ELL Classroom" and "
    Building Background Knowledge for English Language Learners."
  2. Explicitly pre-teach vocabulary related to the topic. Ensure learners understand vocabulary they will encounter when learning about and discussing topics. Teach vocabulary in context, e.g., provide scenarios or examples in text, role play or video form. 

  3. Provide discussion frames. Create sentence stems or frames for learners at lower levels of proficiency to enter the conversation. Consider having learners prepare ideas in advance of discussion and developing a signal to let learners know when it is the right time to share their thoughts. Partner with learners’ language specialist for support. 
  4. Recognize and support learners’ emotional health. Some learners who have experienced trauma may be triggered by controversial conversations. Be observant and flexible to learner needs, and prepared to support conflict resolution if needed. Consult learners’ language specialist for ways planned activities may affect some learners. Consider previewing topics in a safe space in advance. See the "Addressing Student Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression" and "Mirrors, Windows and Doors to Safety and Belonging: Supporting and Protecting Students’ Identities in our Schools Today" resources in the resource section below for more information.

Questions to Consider

  • How old were you when you first became aware of race? What was that experience like for you?

  • How comfortable are you with talking about race? Why do you feel the way you do?

  • What impact does it have on your students if you avoid difficult conversations?

  • If you are not comfortable, what can you do to increase your comfort level and build your skill with facilitating difficult conversations?

Coach Tips

Afrika Afeni Mills
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

If you have colleagues who are also interested in learning more about having difficult conversations with students, collaborate with those colleagues so you can support one another. It is important for teachers engaging in the process of making the learning more culturally responsive to think about ways colleagues can acquire these skills as well as students. Sustainable and systemic change will require this crucial step.