Winnipeg students worried, sympathetic as Russian forces mount attack on Ukraine
Many students and teachers have family in the war-torn country
When Oksana Kosteckyj woke up Thursday morning to the news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she thought of her students.
Like her, many at R.F. Morrison School — with one of Winnipeg's few English-Ukrainian bilingual programs — have ties to the country now under attack.
The vice-principal says she knew those kids, though only in elementary school, would have questions about what was happening — and she wanted to figure out a way to make sure they felt supported.
They are curious. They want to know more. They want to be able to have their questions answered, and they are worried — they're worried like the rest of us.- Oksana Kosteckyj
That's why on Friday, staff and students at every school in the Seven Oaks School Division were urged to show their support for Ukraine by wearing blue- and-yellow clothing or traditional Ukrainian cross-stitched shirts.
That included Grade 5 students Nadia Zaporozhets and Boyan Yereniuk, who both said they hope to attend a rally in support of Ukraine Saturday evening at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
"We're trying our best to support Ukraine in any way that we can," said Nadia, 10, whose grandparents live in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa.
For Boyan, that meant dyeing part of his hair blue. He says his family texts relatives in Ukraine every day, and while they're all OK for now, the 11-year-old is worried.
"It's hard to understand that my home native country is being invaded," he said.
In many classrooms, the show of support for Ukraine has led to conversations about the invasion, which, while difficult, is a good thing, Kosteckyj says.
"They are curious. They want to know more. They want to be able to have their questions answered, and they are worried — they're worried like the rest of us," she said.
As the granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees who fled the country while it was part of the Soviet Union, Kosteckyj says, those conversations have been meaningful for her, too.
"Hearing my grandparents' stories and knowing that they fled Ukraine during a time of Soviet occupation and knowing that that's happening right now in my lifetime — again — is something that is really challenging," she said.
Iryna Deneka feels it, too. Born and raised in Ukraine, the teacher has plenty of loved ones still there — from her mom, brother and extended family to her high school friends now fighting on the front lines in the capital, Kyiv.
While she's been terrified of what might happen next, it also means she knows what some of her students are going through.
"It is absolutely terrifying … you feel helpless. You feel like it's a horror movie. You can't believe it's true," Deneka said, her voice trembling.
"I am there for my students and our whole school is there for our students who feel it in their hearts right now."
Check in with kids: psychologist
While many children and teens are hearing about the invasion right now, how deeply it affects them depends on their age, sensitivity, access to information about it and whether they have ties to the region, clinical child and family psychologist Jo Ann Unger says.
Unger says while she usually advises parents to take their children's lead, it can still be a good idea to check in with them — especially if you notice signs of distress such as anxiety or irritability.
And though it can be tough for parents to see their kids sad or worried, having that kind of reaction to such a difficult situation isn't necessarily a bad thing, says Unger, who's also the president of the Manitoba Psychological Society.
"I know it's hard for parents, because we don't want kids to feel responsible for those things. We don't want them to overworry," she told Marcy Markusa, host of CBC's Information Radio.
"But it's actually a sign of empathy and appropriate development when we have compassion and empathy for other people."
And in some cases, the kids or teens in your life might surprise you. That's what happened to Kelly Reimer, a history and economics teacher at Winnipeg's Kelvin High School.
When Reimer noticed the students in his classes seemed interested in talking about the invasion, he gave them the option to use class time to discuss it.
"They had ideas of their own and they were willing to express them, but they also were very willing to acknowledge that, you know, they don't know everything that's going on," he told Faith Fundal, host of CBC's Up to Speed, on Friday.
And though he has students of both Ukrainian and Russian descent in his classes, Reimer says he hasn't seen anyone take sides based on ethnic identity. Instead, they talked through how they arrived at their opinions — a lesson he hopes they don't forget.
"I want them to continue to sort of think about issues, think about principles … and encourage them to have those principles be what's driving their thoughts," he said. "And I don't know that in society in general, we always get that."
With files from Jérémie Bergeron and Wendy Jane Parker