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How to Tackle Misinformation at School

When conspiracy theories surface in hallway chatter, proceed with curiosity.

By Leah Fabel

Illustration by LA Johnson

April 21, 2021

Illustration of a school hallway

This story is the third in a series of pieces answering questions about how to return to in-person learning and how to do schooling differently—and better—post-pandemic. To source the questions, we spoke with dozens of educators, caregivers, and students. We are grateful for their curiosity and, despite all, their optimism.

In efforts to steer students away from toxic misinformation, educators have revamped civics classes and logged on to countless news literacy apps promising to produce savvy, critical thinkers able to tell fact from fiction. That’s all to the good. But still, as schools reopen and social life resumes, there will be non-classroom moments—in the hallways, at lunch tables, on the sidelines during practice—when lies and conspiracy theories earn airtime. Those moments create opportunities for adults to engage. But how?
 

“If you have rapport with the students, you can enter that space and say, ‘I love that you’re talking about this. Here’s my two cents,’” says Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, where she also manages the nonprofit’s development of mental health curriculum and professional training. From there, adults still hold a responsibility to correct misinformation, but the attempt must begin with “acknowledgement and validation,” she says. “Try saying, ‘You’ve been through a lot. It’s new to engage in these conversations again. I’m so glad you’re open to talking about it.’”

Then, hear kids out and be OK with a lack of closure. “Resolution might not mean that everyone agrees,” Domingues says. “Potentially, it’s that each side thoughtfully describes their perspective and what evidence they use. Recognize it’s a process.” 

Another tactic is to inquire about values instead of drilling down on facts, which can prove slippery. “There’s nothing wrong with asking, ‘Why is it important for you to believe that?’” Domingues says. “Sometimes we come at difficult conversations from a problem-solving perspective, but sometimes it’s more meaningful to talk first about values—what’s important to you? What do you want to contribute to the world?” From there, help students connect their values to their actions and beliefs, pushing them past social media groupthink.

Finally, take advantage of the school as a village, she says. If you overhear students entertaining conspiracies, but you don’t have a relationship with them, find out who does. Talk to their teachers or coaches about what you’re hearing. Talk to staff about schoolwide approaches. “A one-time interjection isn’t going to be that meaningful,” Domingues says. “But if we create a wider web, kids will feel that they’re being cared for and supported for who they are and not reprimanded.

“It makes sense that kids are incredibly passionate about what they’re seeing in the news, and I see hope in that,” she adds. “It’s incredibly important to have these discussions at school, where we’re helping them develop agency.”