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BLOG: Supporting the Wellbeing of Children and Young People through Climate and Sustainable Education

Written by: Verity Jones, Associate Professor of Education at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Verity has spent the last 30 years working with schools, national and international charities and local authorities to develop climate change and sustainable education. Check out her chapter exploring how to use picture books for climate education in Teaching Climate Change and Sustainability in the Primary Curriculum, out in November 2023, edited by Karin Doull and Susan Ogier.

Verity has also recorded two podcasts for us on putting the pedagogy of hope into practice in 1. Early Years and Primary and 2. Secondary/High Schools/Further Education.

On 1st May 2019 the UK became the first national Government to declare an environment and climate emergency.  Four years on we are all too familiar with the doom and gloom reports of ice sheets melting, mass extinctions, extreme weather events, spoiled harvests and food poverty.  Teachers and pupils alike have campaigned for greater inclusion of climate and sustainable education in the curriculum with the Department of Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy being published in 2022. Whilst this sets out key milestones it is in no way a toolkit on how to approach this political, economic and culturally sensitive issue.

Teaching about the climate and sustainability takes time – it is a complicated, messy concept. Teaching about climate and sustainability also take tenderness. There is evidence that many children and young people feel let down and betrayed by the often slow national and global government response to climate change (Hickman et al 2021). Personal responses can swing from feeling sad to angry to anxious to powerless – often with a dose of guilt (Jones and Whitehouse 2022).  Eco-distress is not a mental illness but a normal response to a planet in crisis. Over half of children and adolescent psychiatrists in England are seeing children and young people with eco-distress and I recently visiting a Year 2 class (7-8 year olds) where everyone was talking about how ‘We’re all going to die because of climate change’.

When working with children and young people we need to be sensitive to how the climate and ecological emergency is impacting on the well being of children in our care. 

Traditionally climate and sustainable education has been framed within science and geography lessons, often with an emphasis on the evidence – the facts and figures of a planet in crisis. Children and young people are then often identified as the generation that will ‘sort it out’. This can leave a huge weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our young learners.

Recent research and work in all school phases has shown that climate and sustainable education can be successfully incorporated throughout the curriculum with a more sensitive pedagogy of hope that frames learning and supports mental health and wellbeing.

I would urge teachers to plan sustainable and climate education learning around a series of activities:

      1. Sharing the problem with up to date evidence
      2. Time to reflect on how children and young people feel about the problem and acknowledge this as a normal response to a scary / daunting situation
      3. Findings out about good news stories where people, business and governments at the local, national and global scale have been working towards mitigation
      4. Signposting learners to activities and organisations that they can get involved with should they want to in order to grow agency
      5. Undertaking activities that either mitigate climate change, develop skills, or help amplify their voices as young citizens.

This five-stage approach to climate and sustainable education puts the emphasis on understanding, reflection, celebration and engagement. Each activity is important to develop coherence of understanding and support young people in feeling they are part of a local, national and / or global initiative to protect people and planet. Too often I go into classrooms who have run climate education topics and seen carefully crafted letters to politicians stuck into books or marked and filed. Letters that are never actually sent. Activities with purpose and audience provide learners with an opportunity to amplify their voice and practice active citizenship.


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