accessibility & help

Talking with young people about a major emergency

Major emergencies regularly appear in the news headlines. When an event like this occurs, teachers can use this resource to support young people to explore how they feel about the emergency and the impact it might have had on others.

Learning objectives

Through taking part in these activities young people will be able to:

  • Explore how they and others may feel following news of a major emergency.
  • Consider the people affected and appreciate the humanity and generosity of those helping.
  • Learn coping skills that they can use to help themselves and others when distressing events are in the news.




Curriculum links

PSHE, Citizenship, Tutor Time or Assembly.

One of the best ways to explore a major emergency is by looking at real-life examples of people acting with humanity, as this contributes to resilience building. Bear in mind that some students may have come across distressing content already, or that some may be more upset than others.

Beforehand, consider whether you feel calm enough to explore a major emergency with the group. If not, you may decide to postpone the discussion. Consider if any of your students have been personally affected; think about what you could say if they have. You could mention before the class that you will be discussing this subject, as some learners may prefer not to take part



  1. First reactions – discuss what has happened and who has been affected.
  2. Helping – consider who might need help, what they would need and who could help.
  3. Stress and anxiety reactions – look at the different ways people may react to distressing news and situations, and discuss different ways of coping.
  4. Role play activity: What can I do to help? – Practise supporting someone in distress.
  5. Share the learning – find out what others think and share what you have discovered.

1. First  reactions

Explain that the class will be discussing a major emergency that has happened recently and invite responses to establish how much the young people already know. Clarify any doubts or confusion about the nature of the event.

Use a photograph, a headline or a short video clip as a stimulus. It can be much easier to begin by discussing a part of an incident or a detail than the topic as a whole.

Here are some questions that could prompt a conversation:

  • What is your first impression of this image/video/headline?
  • What is happening?
  • How have the people been affected? (this could be emotionally, physically or practically)
  • How might they be feeling? (e.g. in shock, worried about friends and family, angry)
  • What might they need in this situation? (e.g. first aid, shelter, food)
  • Who could provide this? (e.g. emergency services, a charity, the public)
  • What kind of obstacles could there be? (e.g. financial, safety)

Some young people may not be comfortable expressing their thoughts. Others will value the opportunity to describe their feelings or reactions. Consider whether some students may feel more willing to discuss the topic in small groups or in writing or drawing.

If the young people seem very distressed and not ready to explore the incident, consider beginning with the suggestions in activity 3 (Stress and anxiety reactions).

2. Helping

Divide the board into three columns.

Thinking together about the current incident and people who have been affected, in the first column list some examples of the kinds of people who need help. This could include:

  • People who are injured, possibly seriously
  • People who have witnessed the incident and may be feeling shocked
  • People anxiously seeking relatives or friends
  • People who cannot get access to their homes
  • People who are suddenly short of some essential – such as shelter, clean water, food or medicines.

Then consider examples of people helping that the group may have heard of, e.g. from the news, social media or word of mouth.

This will depend on the incident, but may include examples such as:

  • Members of the public giving people lifts to hospital or back to their homes
  • People opening their homes to people in need
  • Messages of support on social media
  • Donating money
  • People laying flowers to show their support.

As you add the examples to the second column, consider whether they are practical or emotional support, or both.

Then ask for examples of the people or groups who helped – either examples they may have heard of or what they think people might do – and list these people in the third column. These might be:

  • Police and ambulance, fire and rescue services
  • Health workers or hospital staff
  • Staff and volunteers of support organisations such as the British Red Cross
  • People who happen to be on the scene
  • Friends and relatives accompanying the injured
  • People living or working nearby.

Ask the learners who might be able to do which actions, drawing lines linking them. Learners will see how more than one group can do more than one action.


  • Which kinds of things are more for trained workers or volunteers to help with?
  • Which could any willing person do – sometimes it’s not easy to tell. (Some people might need to get to hospital. They could be taken by ambulance, or by a relative or friend.)
  • Explore the meaning of the phrase “It is better to do something than nothing”. While always considering their own safety, what do they think would still be helpful? (e.g. calling 999, comforting someone, providing simple first aid)

Mention that sometimes people say after an incident, “I never knew I could do that; I just acted by instinct.” Invite the young people to say which kinds of help they think they personally would be good at providing. What other skills would they like to learn? Do they have experience of acting beyond their expected limitations? Invite examples from the group and discuss.

3. Stress and anxiety reactions

People can react very differently to a stressful situation or upsetting news, and it is important to understand what level of stress or anxiety is considered normal and what suggests that someone might not be coping. How to talk to young people about a shocking news event will depend on the group and how they are affected. In general, try the following approaches:

  • Do what you can to introduce calm and reduce distress during discussion. For instance, encourage the use of neutral and descriptive words and phrases and focus on the positives of how people coped and recovered from the event.
  • Focus on the help and humanity provided at the time of the incident. Remind the group of the assistance and acts of kindness towards those involved.
  • Help the group appreciate that if they are feeling upset this is an understandable reaction to distressing events. However, if this feeling worsens or continues for a month or more, they may need extra support.

Signs of stress and anxiety

Encourage awareness of the physical and emotional signs of stress and anxiety, and how these can affect the body in the short and long term. This can help the young people recognise when they or others might be feeling this way. Mind map on the board these signs. These could be:

  • Physical (e.g. no appetite, sweating, increased heart rate, low energy, feeling tired, headaches, low immune system)
  • Emotional (e.g. distracted, constantly thinking, being irritable, feeling sad and overwhelmed, unable to relax, withdrawing and not spending time with friends or family)

Personal coping strategies

Ask the young people to consider their behaviour when they are feeling stressed or upset. Then ask them to complete the following sentence, thinking about what helps them to cope. You could display it on the board and invite students to stick their suggestions around it on sticky notes.

  • When I feel stressed or anxious, I feel better if I:

Examples might be:


Spend time on my own.


Read a book.


Listen to music.


Play a musical instrument.


Am with other people.


Play a computer game.


Am with my pet.


Talk to someone.


Draw or paint.


Get exercise.


Watch television.


Have some quiet time.

Spend time outside.

Listen to someone.




Remember happy times.




Write about my feelings.



Looking at the ideas the group produces, ask students to:

  • Identify one they think would not work for them and say why.
  • Select one they have used and describe in more detail what happened.
  • Select one they have never tried but think might be useful for them.

Ask students to consider who they could talk to if these methods don’t seem to be working and they feel overwhelmed (e.g. friends, parents, teachers, relatives, helplines).

Extension activity:

Keep these ideas for coping visible in the classroom and continue to invite additions to the list. It’s a good way to keep the young people aware of the ways of managing stress available to them.

4. Role play activity: What can I do to help?

Many people instinctively want to help those who are in need. In this activity, students will practise supporting someone in distress.

Print the “Supporting people in distress” scenario and role cards and cut them out – you will need enough sets for students to work in groups of three.

Split the students into groups of three. Give each group a set of role cards and three scenario cards.

(Note: We have four suggested scenario cards you can choose from, but you could adapt these or create your own, depending on the situation you wish to explore.)

Explain that they will be exploring how best to support someone who is distressed, and will take a turn in each role: a person in distress, a person supporting them and the coach.

Allow time for them to read their role cards (and one scenario card if they are playing the person in distress). Ask the person in distress to become their character and to explain how they are feeling and what is happening. The other person does their best to support them. The coach follows the conversation and makes notes following the guidance on their card.

Allow approximately five minutes per conversation, with a few minutes for discussion in their groups. Then swap around the roles so that each person in the group tries out each role, with a different scenario each time.

As a class, discuss what worked well in the role play and any additional support ideas they might have. Ask students to consider:

  • What are the most important things to do when supporting someone who is distressed?
  • How did it feel to play each of the roles?
  • How might you apply this learning to your own lives?

5. Share the learning

Encourage the young people to explore this subject outside the classroom – to find out what others think and to share what they’re discovering.

Two possible ideas:

  • Draw up a short questionnaire for them to find out from friends and family what they do when they are distressed or anxious. Include questions with results you can share with others, such as “Do you have a favourite piece of music that helps you de-stress?” “Do you prefer to be alone or with others in a time of stress?” Share these results in the group.
  • Find some creative ways to share the results of the personal stress-reduction strategies exercise. Who might be interested in the ideas? How might they be shared most effectively? Think broadly – this could be social media, posters around the school or to display at home, an assembly or a quiz. Try to match the format to the target audience.


This resource was written by P. J. White of Alt62 and published in November 2017.