By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis
Riddle: What is two words, 12 letters, evokes apocalyptic fears, ensures 1,075 ads a day, creates compulsive opinion sharing between strangers, and is the perfect icing on the year-2020 cake?
Sometimes we experience unmistakable trauma, and other times the trauma unfolds over a longer time, inching among us, slowly removing our sense of personal dominion and control. We feel things change, we have no power to stop what’s happening, and we start to freak out.
The answer to my riddle is a prime example of that second kind of trauma: election year.
A Society Divided
The buildup of a presidential election can often bring about feelings of anxiety and trepidation. Now that we know who will be leading the country for the next four years, we are faced with wondering how things will change and how society will react.
We have entered an age where a mask could incite violence, opinions have to be censored with friends, and apps created for social connection are battlegrounds. Bipartisanship in politics seems an antiquated thing of the past, and somehow the notion of a values system has become disjointed and singular.
But this ethical chaos is not only occurring in our adult world—it is occurring in the world where our children are growing up too. Their lives have been shaped by societal arguments and disunion, and it doesn’t look like it will be ending soon. How is it that the democratic voting system can feel so divisive and bitter?
Apprehension About the Future
I remember being in elementary school during elections. We would get extra credit to follow the polls and monitor developments. We were told it was our civic duty to research the candidates and learn how to cast a ballot. I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was happening, but I knew it was exciting!
Does anyone else remember those days? Do they still exist? Now, instead of excitement, children are more likely to sense adults’ apprehension about the future, regardless of the side of the aisle that their parents fall on. Teachers are in a tough spot, having to be extremely careful about what they say in any connection to societal beliefs or political leanings. If a student gets the impression that their teacher is promoting a side, you can bet the principal will get an unhappy phone call.
This year’s election came with so much baggage that it is a hard one for anyone to carry. We attached values to political choices like never before—creating a deeper, more rooted, and exposed impasse. On social media, in our homes, in conversations with friends, on the television—we were all discussing how one candidate or the other would cause our country’s demise. My chest is tightening just thinking about it! In the aftermath of the election, many children who listened to these conversations are waiting for the world to crumble as they have been promised it will.
Making School a Positive Place
Though society and the government feel chaotic amid political sparring, what if we could make the school environment a place where we restore a bit of harmony for children? The divisions within our country during and following this election have put most people on edge. Parents, teachers, and leaders are maxed out on the mental pressure of making adult decisions. This has created an environment for our students of not only uncertainty, but also hostility.
It is difficult to say if this time of crisis in America is traumatic for students, but we can deduce that elevated emotions in the adults children depend on cannot be assuring. As when students are experiencing any trauma, it is immeasurably beneficial for them to feel as though school is a place of positivity during this time. We can do this by behaving and interacting in the respectful way that our students deserve to have as their example.
Students should not be put in a position of feeling as if they are referees to adults who have lost sight of what’s important in our relationships with others: kindness, compassion, and open-mindedness. A cohesive environment can combat the examples of poor leadership that our students have witnessed. You can create this environment using intentional practices such as:
- Consistent positive reinforcement
- Assurance that there is a plan for abrupt changes
- Calm and caring responses to high-stress situations
- A firm stance on no name-calling, even if claimed in jest
- Celebration of positive interactions between students
- Staff cohesion and kindness
Lessons in Patience
Modeling the behavior we hope to see in our students (a common leadership practice, who would have thought?!) is our best tactic. However, we can also create thoughtful lessons that challenge students to exercise their listening, empathy, and patience skills while still voicing their individual opinions.
- Speech studies: Show students famous speeches by leaders who have been respectfully honest about their feelings on controversial topics.
- TED discussions: Play TED Talks for students and allow them time to discuss the topic and relate speakers’ opinions to their own lives.
- Observation journals: Encourage students to keep journals with observations of people they respect (no judgment or speculations—observations only).
- Peer conferences: Have students hold conferences with each other to set personal goals and give updates on their progress.
Moving Forward, Together
As our elected officials and political parties have become more and more divisive, so too have our relationships. Our children have witnessed it. In all fairness, our children have witnessed our country’s leaders behave in ways that children would be reprimanded for. Even if kids haven’t been told that things are upside down, we can be pretty sure that they know the world feels topsy-turvy.
By centering on empathy and treating others with grace in our schools after an intense political election, we can model the behaviors we seek to foster in our students. When we provide students a school environment (either in person or virtual) that is engaging and inviting for everyone, we can combat the contentious environment they are experiencing outside of school.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
Stephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.
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