The Elephant 2.0- Mitigating the Effects of Russia’s Military Action in Ukraine on Students

July 8, 2022

After more than two years of educating amid a global pandemic, a new crisis threatens mental wellbeing in schools: Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.  

  • “What effect does this war have on us and our students?”  
  • “How can we help ourselves while simultaneously helping them to get through this period as best as possible”?  

With these questions in mind, we invited our colleague and friend Dr. Doug Walker to share his knowledge and expertise.  

Dr. Walker is a Clinical Psychologist and Chief Programs Director of Mercy Family Center, in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. He is also a trauma specialist, technical advisor and trainer for the implementation of trauma informed and crisis response for AISA International School members, a US State Department consultant for Overseas Schools and a CIS Affiliated Consultant.    

The effects of the war in Ukraine on students, and what to do about it

  1. Upholding common humanity in a man-made disaster

Looking at natural disasters, we often ask ourselves, “Why did God let this happen?” But the war in Ukraine is man-made and that has different impact than the COVID-19 crisis, including effects on the mental health of staff and students. The question many are facing is “How could human beings do this to each other?” This war is an issue of humanity. Students start to question how humans relate to one another and what the future may hold for them personally. This could result in great distress given the level of uncertainty and danger we are potentially facing. Whilst it is true that we humans are be capable of unspeakable cruelty (which sells in the media landscape), we are also incredible resourceful and endlessly willing to provide care and compassion (which often stays unnoticed in the public eye).

The many Ukrainian flags being flown in support and the fact that the top language to learn on Duolingo became Ukrainian show that people do care. Remind yourself and your students that amid devastation there are great acts of love and generosity. Many schools have become very creative to reach out to those in need. This crisis is yet another chance to reconnect with one another and to strengthen a mindset of compassion and empathy.  

2) Bridging the divide in school between Russian and Ukrainian students:

If you are an educator in an international school, you may have already been confronted with Ukrainian and Russian students separating themselves from one another.  

During the pandemic, teachers and educators did their best to foster connections between the children. And now, new dividing lines are opening up. Dr. Doug Walker has a clear attitude towards this issue. “Magic happens in circles,” he states.  

3) Awareness of age differences  

Since younger kids tend to believe that events are happening to them in real time, it’s important to approach different age groups differently. Yet, there are no specific rules for this. Dr. Walker sees only one variable as non-negotiable: according to him, we have to engage in active coping. This means we all have to feel that we are doing something at whatever level. This may be through donations, developing compassion, or realizing we are no different. “It’s not them and us, it’s we.” This is the foundation we may want to come back to, in order to engage in the service of our choice.  

3) Handling the Trauma Curve:

Dr. Doug Walker has faced many different disasters throughout his career and often refers to the “curve of disaster”. Many of us have been happy to almost reach the end of this curve with the fading of the pandemic, yet with the new crisis we might feel pushed back almost at the beginning once again.  


After the initial shock, we might yet again swing into action and help as our way of coping; we might dose our information intake or again feel anxious more often than not. All these actions or emotions are part of moving through this time. Asked whether we can prepare for reconstruction and growth ahead of time Walker explains that the most important day is often a phenomenon called Day 366. This is typically the time where the media attention disappears, and along with it, the money and support for the people and organisations in need. Anticipating this now will allow preparation for a better long-term solution to keep the kindness and help flowing for those directly impacted by this war as well as for our own wellbeing.  

4) Protecting your own wellbeing as educators:

Many in the field of education seem to be utterly exhausted. The question is: “How can we help and protect ourselves and our mental health?”

Dr. Walker compares educators to his own profession: As a trauma professional he handles human suffering every day. It is essential for him to have clear active protective measures in place to stay well, to enjoy life and to not take his work home.  He uses a cognitive approach, such as distancing himself from the feelings of the other person, by taking an inner step back, e.g. looking at the situation from an outside or future perspective. In times of great crisis media presence, he uses what he calls “skimming”. Skimming means that he avoids visual material and instead chooses to read the information he needs. “Reading is much more controllable,” he explains.  

Dr. Walker encourages educators to trust human resilience. “We humans, again and again, prove to have it everything we need inside ourselves already.” Months ago, Dr. Walker gave a talk at the National School of Africa and spontaneously asked the students in challenging circumstances what they did to get by. The answers were astonishingly simple and effective:  

  • connecting with friends
  • staying flexible
  • saying yes to something means saying no to something else
  • listening to each other

And he reminds us: “We can’t listen with our thumbs”. Remember to put your screens down for important conversations.

6) Keeping up hope  

The most important virtue for all of us right now is patience. For students, this can be incredibly hard. It is helpful to remember signs and actions of hope that teachers and students have been able to rely upon in the past. Try these hope inducing questions for yourself or with colleagues and students:

1.What is a source of hope for you?

2. Are you okay right now? (This is a great question to come back into the present moment)

3.What is your emotional patina?

Emotional patina is a word defined by Dr. Doug Walker that describes the tools you successfully used while enduring past challenges. It helps you realize that you have already overcome great adversity and that you hold the power to do it again.

Another great exercise is to imagine what specific strategies have helped you overcome adversity in the past. Therefore, we have created an engaging imagination exercise that will help you grow your strength and confidence in this area. Just scan this QR-code and you can start the exercise.  

We are facing tough times. Remember, resilience comes after adversity. Right now, keep up the care for one another, keep compassion and hope flowing and focus on social-emotional safety and connection in every setting. At the end of the day, standing together is what will help us all to get through this.  

We hope this article will help you reach a greater level of confidence and ability in yourself, and help you assist others to follow suit. The full recording of the conversation is also available by registering here.

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