Tackling Tricky Topics in PSHE

Teachers need to create a safe environment in which pupils can share their feelings, explore their values and attitudes, express their opinions and consider those of others without attracting negative feedback.  This will help to enhance self-esteem and encourage more open discussion. It will also help to make sure that teachers are not anxious about unexpected language use or comments.

To do this, teachers should:

  • Help pupils set ground rules about how they will behave towards each other in discussion
  • Judge when to allow pupils to discuss issues confidentially in small groups and when to support them by listening in to these group discussions
  • Make sure that pupils have access to balanced information and differing views, including contributions made by visitors to the classroom, with which they can then clarify their own opinions and views
  • Decide how far they are prepared to express their own views, bearing in mind that they are in an influential position and that they have to work within the framework of the school’s values
  • Make sure that they are sensitive to the needs of individuals in the class when tackling issues of social, cultural or personal identity.

Setting ground rules

It is essential that pupils and teachers develop ground rules together rather than being presented with ones produced elsewhere. They will then need to test them in discussion and group activities, amending them as necessary. Some examples of ground rules might include agreeing an appropriate vocabulary to use (during sex and relationship education activities, for example), or not asking personal questions. The rules could also include respecting what people say, listening, using anonymous examples (‘when someone…’) and having the option to ‘pass’. Using distancing techniques such as role play and case studies with invented characters can help to de-personalise discussions.

Some example statements (use pupil-friendly language):

  • Listen to each other
  • Make positive comments that help people
  • Respect what people say or do
  • Take turns and help each other
  • You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to
  • Avoid asking people personal questions
  • Use the appropriate names for things

Pupils should be regularly reminded of the ground rules (display them clearly) and of their importance when handling sensitive issues during whole-class and group discussion.  Always try to keep the statement positive i.e. what we will do rather than what we must not do

Dealing with difficult, personal or sensitive issues

Learning from real-life experience is central to PSHE. Sensitive and controversial issues are certain to arise.  Pupils should not be sheltered from such issues; through them they can develop an important range of skills, including listening, accepting other points of view, arguing a case, dealing with conflict and distinguishing between fact and opinion.

Almost any issue can prove sensitive to an individual. However, issues that are most likely to be sensitive or controversial include those that have a political, social or personal impact, deal with questions of values and beliefs or are raised by sex and relationship education.  Other issues likely to be sensitive or controversial in the context of these units of work include: family lifestyle and values (including cultural and religious values); physical and medical issues; financial issues (including unemployment); bullying (including homophobic and racist bullying); bereavement.

Examples of strategies to deal with these issues include:

  • Remind the pupil of the ground rules
  • Use a question box so that you have time to prepare
  • Refer the pupil to the appropriate person
  • If the answer isn’t known, find out and get back to the pupils later
  • If a question is too explicit, feels too old for a pupil, is inappropriate for the whole class, or raises concerns about sexual abuse, the teacher should acknowledge it and promise to attend to it later on an individual basis
  • If a question gives cause for concern that a pupil is at risk of sexual abuse, follow the school’s child protection procedures

Using distancing techniques can also help to remove embarrassment, by using case studies/role playing activities/drama/freeze-frame scenarios, etc.