Transitions and change can be difficult for all children. For example, presidential elections signify the transition from one administration to a new administration. While some students may be overjoyed by the president who has been elected, others may be dismayed that their, or their family’s, candidate of choice did not win.
During this time, it can be difficult for children to understand what statements made during the campaign will mean for their future. They may be concerned for the well-being of themselves, their families, and their friends. As such, it is an important time for us to come together, work together, and respect one another.
Schools across the country are welcoming and serving students from diverse backgrounds. Each student brings their unique cultures and individual backgrounds. Students from diverse groups that have experienced marginalization may be especially vulnerable to stressors. Currently, many students who themselves are, or live in families with, immigrants, undocumented immigrants, unaccompanied minors, refugees, persons of color, Muslims, or LGBTQ persons, among others, are reporting feeling targeted and unsafe. The following tips and related resources can help educators support students during trying times.
Engage and empower families
Families may have different views about education, including the assumption that education remains the duty of the school and any involvement would encroach on that responsibility. Some immigrant and refugee families may not be proficient enough in English to know how to engage, despite a desire to do so. Additionally, many families may experience practical barriers, such as not having a car, or employment that does not allow for active engagement during school hours.
Some families may fear calling additional attention to themselves and their diverse backgrounds. Schools can work with cultural liaisons and families to find ways to connect with parents and ensure they have opportunities to meaningfully participate in their child’s schooling. Schools may consider reaching out to local community organizations that support marginalized groups to gather additional resources on how to support families from diverse backgrounds. Securing translators may be needed as well.
Understand the effect of stressors and trauma on school functioning
Extreme stress, adversity, and trauma can impede concentration, cognitive functioning, memory, and social relationships. Additionally, stress can contribute to both internalized symptoms—such as hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, grief, fear, anger, isolation—and externalized behaviors—such as startle responses, reactivity, aggression, and conduct problems.
Given the often chronic and significant stress placed on students from diverse backgrounds, many are at increased risk for experiencing trauma and developing other mental health problems, undermining their ability to function effectively in school.
Many children may not understand the political process and assume that statements they have heard on the news will happen immediately and may be fearful about impending changes. Therefore, teachers might see absences, distracted behaviors, withdrawal, irritability, and other changes in students who may feel that they, their family members, or their friends have been targeted in conversations and events around them.
Equip staff to provide trauma-sensitive responses and supports
Students from marginalized groups are at risk for experiencing trauma and the additive risk of multiple traumas. Creating trauma-sensitive schools greatly enhances supports for all traumatized students. A trauma-sensitive school views behavior as a potential outcome of life circumstances rather than willful disobedience or intentional misbehavior.
Trauma-sensitive approaches emphasize helping school staff understand the impact of trauma on school functioning and seeing behavior through this lens; building trusting relationships among teachers and peers; helping students develop the ability to self-regulate behaviors, emotions, and attention; supporting student success in academic and nonacademic areas; and promoting physical and emotional health.
Be sensitive to family stressors
Parents and other family members are also dealing with the stress of transitioning to a new administration. This may cause financial or employment uncertainty and concerns about the political forecast. Groups who may have felt marginalized during the election cycle may feel an increased sense of marginalization at its close. Additionally, some parents may have experienced significant stress throughout the election, which can lead to increased risk for a range of negative outcomes for their children.
Understand cultural views regarding mental health
It is important that mental health professionals be aware of attitudes toward mental illness and the role of mental health services when providing assistance to students. Many cultures may have different conceptualizations of mental illness, and in some cultures and faith communities, mental health problems may be stigmatized.
Some cultures may view emotional distress as a weakness in character as opposed to a natural response to change, stressors, and adversity. Understanding these differences is an essential first step to comforting and engaging students and their families and ultimately building the trust necessary to provide effective services and supports.
Stop any type of harassment or bullying immediately
Given the tone of the most recent election cycle, children may feel bullying and intimidation are acceptable. Make it clear that such behavior, in any form (in person, online, on social media), is unacceptable. Promote acceptance and actively teach conflict resolution skills to the perpetrators, bystanders, and victims.