Middle school students and climate change: Assessing attitudes and emotions

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Master of Environmental Studies Capstone Projects
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Environmental Sciences
Physical Sciences and Mathematics
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Mark, Beth

While it is common knowledge that the majority of American adults hold a variety of strong and polarized beliefs and attitudes about climate change, much less is known about how American youth are thinking and feeling about this topic. This information gap is significant, because attitudes and beliefs formed in childhood (particularly during early adolescence) have a profound impact on future behaviors. Feelings, emotional responses, matter for two reasons. One, emotions significantly influence the openness and ability to learn about the science of climate change. Two, once learned, the science of climate change itself can evoke strong and often distressing emotions. The more parents and teachers understand children’s emotions and attitudes about climate change, the more effectively they will teach and guide them. This study assessed middle school students’ reactions to watching an informational video about climate change via two pre and post video assessment tools, the Climate Change Attitude Survey (CCAS) and the Positive and Negative Affects Scale for Children (PANAS-C). On the PANAS-C, there was a significant increase in negative emotions after viewing the video (p<.001). Similarly, on the CCAS, student’s belief that climate change has a negative impact on humans was significantly greater after watching the video (p <.001). Our remaining findings relied on qualitative data; we describe our observations of how a skilled adult (the classroom teacher) helped the students process their emotional reactions to exposure to information about the current climate crisis. Conclusions from this study can be used to develop and refine climate change curricula and teaching practices, as well as inform mental health professionals who work with middle school students.

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