Handling Planned or Unexpected Class Discussions Involving Sensitive Topics

Sensitive topics can be extremely diverse and may include: race and ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, sexuality, physical appearance, disability, socioeconomic status, politics, religion, genetic testing, evolution, immigration, grief, loss, trauma, and many more. 

Particularly in the current climate, a sensitive topic may reach your classroom whether you invite it or not. You may want to address the topic in class, your students may want to discuss it, or the subject may come up spontaneously because of your course content or implications. Below are suggestions for both unexpected and planned class discussions that involve sensitive topics.

Suggestions for instances when a sensitive topic comes up unexpectedly

  • Acknowledge the concern. You might also point out that other students in the room likely have their own individual responses and concerns.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic now
    • If you do pursue a discussion, set a time frame, and use some of the strategies outlined below to facilitate.
    • If you find you are not ready to handle a discussion on-the-fly, do not feel obliged to do so. You may want to acknowledge the value of having a discussion but, in fact, defer until you have a plan or dedicated class time to address it.  In lieu of discussion, you could ask students to write briefly on the topic, and then you could summarize and present their ideas and reactions at the next class session.

Suggestions for instructors planning and leading discussions about a sensitive topic

Before the discussion:

  • Allow enough time. You can share this planned time frame with your students at the outset of the discussion.
  • Plan your opening and closing. Think through supportive ways to introduce and close the discussion.

During the discussion:

  • Establish ground rules. Urge students to speak for themselves and listen to each other, taking care to respect each other and the value of constructive discussion. 
  • Expect the topic to stir emotions. Be attentive to the human and emotional toll the crisis is taking and the impact of information disseminated by you and others.
  • Explicitly acknowledge the difference in types of comments made during the discussion (emotional, informational, analytical). You can help students understand one another better if you assist them in seeing the different orientations of each other’s statements.
  • Allow everyone a chance to talk (when possible), but don’t force students to participate. Understand that students will have varying reactions to the discussion, and some will prefer to remain silent.

Closing the discussion: