School safeguarding policy should consider climate change and eco-anxiety

I’ve moved onto the next phase of something I have been working on for over a year now, and that is supporting educators and anyone concerned to raise the profile of the climate change issue in schools. A combination of research and experience has led me to strongly believe that climate change should be considered a safeguarding issue, therefore senior leadership at any school should give it greater attention. I presented my updated argument at two conferences (UKEdChat21 and GAConf21), both them and this post is an update to my ‘GA magazine’ article published by the Geographical Association in September 2020. If you attented GAConf21, you would have received an email from the GA with the password to watch the recording of my session (Friday 2pm) via this link.

NB: To help me increase my impact, please support me by taking part in some evaluation. Before you read, answer the questions on the first slide of this Mentimeter: menti.com/mfx9hnjkpk. When done, please answer the Qs on the last slide. Thank you!

Webinar for the UKEdChat 2021 Online Conference, summarising the key points that you will read in this article. You can use this webinar, plus other recordings from this conference towards some CPD accreditation. The webinar also has a related forum where you can discuss the issues and ideas raised.

What are my credentials?

Informing my passion for this issue has been my knowledge and experience. I have an Environmental Science degree from the University of East Anglia, where I specialised in meteorology, climate science and environmental risk. I was lucky enough to do my dissertation with the Climatic Research Unit, whose scientists are on the forefront of climate science. I have since kept up to date with the researchers, working with scientists at the National Oceanic Atmospheric & Administration in Boulder, Colorado and then for a non-profit supporting research in the climate and energy sector. I was project manager and education lead for an EU-funded Copernicus Climate Change programme in developing an application to make climate data more accessible to a wider audience. I’ve also had over 13 years experience teaching high-school and working in HE outreach, from which has come extensive safeguarding training and more recently, mental health first aid training. It really was a case of putting two-and-two together… all of these components naturally intersected and gave me no doubt that climate change is a safeguarding issue.

What do mean by ‘safeguarding’ in this context?

Statements such as “All teachers have a duty to safeguard their students” are as familiar as they are unimpeachable. There is little room for interpretation of how different education establishments approach strict statutory guidance for keeping children safe, but we can expand within that guidance.

How about “All teachers must aid students to safeguard themselves and others, including giving them the knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions to do so”? This, to me, is key to the success of safeguarding. Call it what you will: building resilience, being aware and mitigating own risks, and so forth. We teach children to cross the road safely, rather than acting as a crossing guard for their entire lives, after-all. Of course, the danger from motor vehicles is one of the myriads of things that we need to protect children from, and such ‘everyday’ endemic risks usually don’t get singled for mention in safeguarding policies. Rather it is issues such as online safety, various forms of abuse, radicalisation that do, and justifiably so.

But what about climate change? I set out an argument that now is the time climate change warrants its own focus in safeguarding policy.

Aren’t you just talking about “eco-anxiety”?

Simply, no, but it is a significant component. As with all mental health issues, we should be moving beyond stigma and take the time to both recognise and accept that eco-anxiety exists. Where official safeguarding policy is concerned, a link can already be made. In a 34-page document on ‘Mental Health and behaviour in schools’, the UK’s Department for Education lists a substantial number of both ‘risk’ and ‘protective’ factors which impact children’s “own behaviour, their interpersonal behaviour and emotional state”. Listed as one of the risk factors is ‘Disaster, accidents, war or other overwhelming events’.

While some may argue that the media has a measure of blame for creating pitching climate change as a ‘disaster’ or ‘overwhelming event’, the headline “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” is one example of a title accepted for publication in a scientific journal. Use of what may seem as ‘emotive’ language is becoming more common in scientific articles relating to climate change because it is acceptable and accurate to do so. “Siberian heatwave of 2020 almost impossible without climate change” is another recent example.

In January 2020, the UK-based environmental charity ‘Global Action Plan’ reported results from a study stating ‘77% of students say that thinking about climate change makes them anxious’ and studies abroad of similar focus corroborate such findings. And 1 in 3 teachers are seeing high levels of climate anxiety in students. Last month (March 2021) this study was expanded upon by a report on eco-anxiety released by Force of Nature, a non-profit that works to empower young people to ‘climate agency’, started at a young age in climate activism. You can read the findings via forceofnature.xyz/research.

Given all this, it is of my opinion that one entry in a list of ‘risks factors’ to children’s mental health is inadequate when it comes to eco-anxiety. However, as you will see from the next section, my argument goes beyond just one tentative link to official mental health guidance.

The impacts are here, now

Findings from Caroline Hickman, a psychologist from the University of Bath who was involved in the Force of Nature report, were given in a September 2019 press release titled ‘Rise of ‘eco-anxiety’ affecting more and more children…’ states studies have found 45% of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. And such events that can be linked to climate change are on the increase, as the science of climate change attribution has become increasingly robust in the past few years.

Climate attribution science shows that extreme events due to climate change are increasing, that the are increasing here ‘in our back yard’ too, and that the anxiety is directly and indirectly impacting our pupils.

Two sources that are very good for further reading and exploration of climate attribution science are an article from Scientific American titled 'Scientists Can Now Blame Individual Natural Disasters on Climate Change' and Carbon Brief's 'Mapped: How Climate Change Affects Extreme Weather Around The World'.
Two sources that are very good for further reading and exploration of climate attribution science are an article from Scientific American titled ‘Scientists Can Now Blame Individual Natural Disasters on Climate Change‘ and Carbon Brief’s ‘Mapped: How Climate Change Affects Extreme Weather Around The World‘.

The Carbon Brief website is a fantastic bridge between complex and robust climate science and communicating it’s messages in a more accessible manner. But it is still quite deep and heavy, perhaps reserved for older students and teachers wanting to improve their own background knowledge. An alternative is Climate Signals – which does a wonderful job increasing accessibility for a wider audience. In early April, I spoke to Rose Andreatta, Associate Director, Climate Science Communications at
Climate Nexus, who told me more about Climate Signals.

An example of a 'tree' from the Climate Signals website. This links greenhouse gas emissions to the polar vortex breakdown that brought very cold weather in February 2021 to much of the United States and Europe, including the UK. Image source from severe-weather.eu.
An example of a ‘tree’ from the Climate Signals website. This links greenhouse gas emissions to the polar vortex breakdown that brought very cold weather in February 2021 to much of the United States and Europe, including the UK. Image source from severe-weather.eu.

While most events mapped on the website are in the USA, more from the UK and Europe are being added. Storm Desmond, which caused intense flooding in 2015, and the 2019 Summer heatwaves are two such examples. For the former, Climate Signals points to a study which found the likelihood of storms with the intensity of Desmond has increased 25% due to climate change. And for the latter, it cites a study which found climate change made the record June 2019 heat in France up to 100 times more likely and up to 4°C hotter.

Of the infamous 2003 European Heatwave, something used by many-a geography teacher as a case study, one piece of climate attribution research quanitified that “…out of the estimated ~315 and ~735 summer deaths attributed to the heatwave event in Greater London and Central Paris, respectively, 64 (±3) deaths were attributable to anthropogenic (human) climate change in London, and 506 (±51) in Paris.” The disclosure of error margins (±) is a morbid indication of how meticulous climate change attribution science is today.

What brings these findings home, especially where the children in our care are concerned, is that events which can be attributed to climate change are having a direct impact. No longer are such things stories from distant shores. For the GA’s eConference in April 2020, I led a session that focussed on the use of GIS to teach climate change. But for context and to establish the importance of teaching climate change issues across different phases and topics, I asked participants to consider whether they think climate change should be considered a safeguarding issue. One response from a teacher was particularly striking: “Flooding in Sheffield affected my students massively. Many of our [students] live in uninsured homes at massive risk of homelessness”. Preliminary analysis by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) suggests that the floods of November 2019 which includes the River Don in Sheffield are “at least consistent with what we may expect in a warming world.” The probability that each of us will teach students who are directly impacted by events attributable to climate change is increasing, whether it is the loss of a stable home due to flooding, or bereavement as an elderly or vulnerable relative succumbs to excessive heat, or indeed the mental-health impacts as mentioned before.

What might a safeguarding policy that includes climate change look like?

Explicitly mentioning the term ‘climate change’ in the school safeguarding policy is arguably redundant. Considering climate change as a safeguarding issue should be a reflective process, considering the context of your school’s situation and demographics. And so, rather than present suggestions of formal text to include in school policies that must link to safeguarding, I pose some questions that schools could ask themselves in order to develop their own approaches. These questions are based upon safeguarding links from the UK Government Department for Education’s ‘Keeping children safe in education: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges.’ document.

Safeguarding linkExamples of questions to explore
Providing a safe environment in which children can learnWhat messages of positivity or empowerment (e.g. successful efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, community projects) are being communicated?
What school and college staff should look out for (early help)Are there students who have directly been impacted by an event attributable to climate change?

Are there children who are at greater risk to eco-anxiety and what are their risk factors?
“Contextual safeguarding” *Is the school catchment area situated in an area that is at risk, or increasingly at risk, of events attributable to climate change?

To what extent are children themselves aware of risks, and how to find out about them?

What pedagogies are used, and topics taught, that allow children and their families to mitigate risks themselves?
Online safetyHow can climate change be used as a topic to explore ‘fake news’ and sensible use of social media?

Are children aware, and can use, authoritative or reliable online sources to learn about the issue? (e.g. Met Office, IPCC)
*Contextual safeguarding: wider environmental factors present in a child’s life that are a threat to their safety and/or welfare

How a school chooses to formalise, mandate and act on the outcomes of discussions from posing these questions should be the next step. One way could be to map outcomes to subject curriculums. For the Geographical Association Conference 2021 earlier this month, in my session on this topic I used Google Jamboard to support participants in mapping questions as those above to their provision, whether it be their Geography curriculum or other subjects.

You are very welcome to visit the Jamboard yourself and take a look at everyone’s thoughts and ideas. Even better, if you have a Google account you can make a copy of the Jamboard (via the ‘three dots’ menu at top-right), clean it of existing post-its, and have a go at your own mapping exercise for your situation.

Mapping activity using Google Jamboard. On this page, articipants teaching Geography at Key Stage 3 to 5 used digital post-its to think about when they could address each aspect of the safeguarding links to each year group.
Mapping activity using Google Jamboard. On this page, articipants teaching Geography at Key Stage 3 to 5 used digital post-its to think about when they could address each aspect of the safeguarding links to each year group.

While on the topic of curriculum resources and planning, a fantastic set of resources for both primary and secondary phases, and also for cross-curricular links are the ‘Climate Action Resources’ from Leeds Development Education Centre (DEC). They have ‘created a whole school framework that helps schools plan and assess their climate education from KS1 to KS4’.

Keeping children ‘safe’ from climate change

We can’t control whether the children in our care live in flood risk zones. Nor can we cater for those which have loved ones who are vulnerable to extreme temperatures, or infectious diseases that could be exacerbated by climate change. So perhaps it is in contextual safeguarding and supporting children at risk of mental health issues in which the issue of climate change lies most prominently. Teachers of Geography are exceptionally well-placed in this respect, as it is in our subject where we can place climate change in many contexts through the delivery of content, and the development of skills such as critical thinking. Geography specialists can help their schools explore many, if not all, of the questions posed the table. Perhaps an approach could be to have a Geography specialist as one of the schools safeguarding leads?

To come full-circle, I return to eco-anxiety. How can we promote and support healthier mindsets in children and soften the risk factor of climate change as an ‘overwhelming event’? Clover Hogan, Founder and Executive Director of Force of Nature, at the Big Climate Teach-In, an online streaming event co-hosted by Paul Turner in early July 2020 recalled that at sixteen while attempting to lobby corporate leaders, she experienced an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, a threat which she feels is greater than that of the climate crisis itself. It wasn’t until a few years later, working with Caroline Hickman, that Clover came to the realisation that feelings of anxiety over climate change and destruction of the environment are natural human responses.

Coming soon to the Geographical Association website, I created a whole climate change scheme of work which includes some activities about youth empowerment and agency. For the time being you can access a pre-release version of those activities here.

The activities help students to evaluate which actions individuals they are capable and able to take to help mitigate against climate change, and to acknowledge ‘eco-anxiety’ is real and normal, and be aware of ways to manage it. The aim is to develop a positive ‘can-do’ attitude. It is important to ensure students don’t feel pressured take any actions on a checklist. Students need to know that they aren’t required to disclose why they don’t desire or aren’t capable of having a go at an action, as the reason could be personal (e.g. their household has financial difficulties, or they don’t feel comfortable challenging people at home to make changes). Of course, having a safe classroom environment which allows students to discuss if they feel they wish should always be available.

Why not now?

Empowerment and agency allows me to end on a positive note. In November of last year I was very proud to be part of the Youth Climate Summit 2020, hosted by Global Action Plan’s ‘Transform Our World’. A whole week of virtual activities and videos were put on for primary and secondary schools, all of which can be watched back for free.

My personal contribution to the summit was a performance poetry piece inspired by young people, who contributed stories of how they are doing their bit to address the climate crisis. You can see this blog post for the full video performance and clickable lyrics to explore all the contributions of positive actions!

Thanks for reading! Please visit menti.com/mfx9hnjkpk and answer the Qs on the last slide now. (If you didn’t to do the ‘pre-evaluation’ (first) slide Qs as requested at the top, please do your best to also answer those honestly with regards how you felt before reading this article. Evaluation is very important to my work and will help me be more effective in pushing this important agenda to safeguard our youngsters. I very much appreciate your time.


Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee.

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Citing this post

APA: Rackley, K. (2021, April 25). School safeguarding policy should consider climate change and eco-anxiety [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/25/school-safeguarding-policy-should-consider-climate-change-and-eco-anxiety/

MLA: Rackley, Kit. “School safeguarding policy should consider climate change and eco-anxiety”. Geogramblings. 25 Apr. 2021, https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/25/school-safeguarding-policy-should-consider-climate-change-and-eco-anxiety/.

Harvard: Rackley, K. (2021). School safeguarding policy should consider climate change and eco-anxiety [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2021/04/25/school-safeguarding-policy-should-consider-climate-change-and-eco-anxiety/ (Accessed: day month year)

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