Teaching middle-school children about climate change may be one of the most important things we can do to save the planet. Yes, the same ones doing those funny “Fortnite” dances while waiting for the bus in the morning. It’s those kids who have the most potential, according to a new study.
It’s at this developmental age that students can master complex concepts like climate change and remain open to new ideas, the researchers say. Middle school is usually when we start to figure out how we really feel about the world and to form our own opinions.
It’s these kids, the study found, who can best reach adults and encourage them to act to fight climate change, regardless of their parents’ political leanings. In fact, the researchers found this method has the greatest impact on the people who are otherwise hardest to convince: conservative males.
For the study, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers created and carried out an experiment with students in coastal North Carolina. They gave specialized climate change training to middle school teachers, sharing lessons that would specifically encourage the kids to interact with their parents and talk about the topic.
Research has shown that lessons on climate change that have the most impact typically frame the topic around something you can see or experience, so the lessons were focused on these themes.
The first lesson taught the difference between weather and climate. The next was on how the environment relates to animals and where they live. The third looked at how people who work with wildlife can help the animals adapt to climate change, if they can do so. The fourth lesson focused on how an individual can directly affect the environment.
The students also did a climate change-focused service learning project, created a blog post about what they were learning and interviewed their parents about the topic.
The researchers divided the students into two groups: a control group that didn’t get the specialized lessons and the ones who did. They also surveyed parents before, during and after the program, following these groups for two years.
After the program, the 357 students who got the special lessons and their parents showed a larger change in their level of concern about climate change than the 224 students who did not get the training.
The change in attitude was most noticeable among parents who were “typically most resistant to climate change communications,” according to the study Mostly, these were politically conservative parents who showed the lowest concern about climate change before their children had the classes.
Dads showed the most change, and daughters were the most persuasive.
“I really think it is very timely and really speaks to the fact that we have to prepare kids for climate change, because they will have to deal with the impact,” said study author Danielle Lawson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. “We see kids taking action on this topic all over the world, but we haven’t looked closely at their impact in families before. If we give them this voice, though, they can make a difference.
“The results make me so excited because it gives me hope for our future.”
Immediate action is key. Experts say we have about 12 years to take collective action to cut greenhouse gases and keep the global average temperature from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Beyond that tipping point, scientists think climate change will have done permanent damage, bringing on massive floods, fires and droughts, killing thousands of people and costing billions.
The potential for irreversible harm to the planet is not an easy thing to talk about with kids, but it’s important, educators say.
Kate Kindleberger, who works with middle schoolers in Chicago, just started teaching about climate change. Although she doesn’t plan on creating much homework with the lesson unit, she thought it might be interesting for her own students to have conversations with their parents about it.
Her program uses lessons from an education group called Amplify, which she said doesn’t “soft-pedal” anything.
The class talks about how some coastal cities and islands may be underwater in the future and how some species will have to move or die. They talk about why the climate is changing and why surface ice is decreasing. They look at why these questions are important and the quality of the facts around them.
“I don’t want to freak them all out, and I’m trying to pay attention to the emotional cues from my students,” Kindleberger said, but it’s important to teach this. “We will be doing some work processing the emotional side of what we are learning.”
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Kindleberger said it’s too early to know how her students or their parents will feel about climate change after the program. Although she didn’t need to be convinced about it and her son Moses is only elementary-age, when he learned about climate change in school, it sparked a family conversation.
“When he was in first grade, he was learning about sea level rise, and I remember seeing in his little kid handwriting the question ‘when will the water get to us where we live?’ I thought we’d talk about climate change a little later in his life, but he wanted to know, and he didn’t seem really stressed about it.
“He has some understanding that humans are ruining the Earth, but it didn’t stress him out,” Kindleberger said. “The good thing was, it made him thoughtful about it, and we talked about it. Those conversations are so important for all of us.”