The recent election results left our nation overcome with intense emotions: Some Americans are experiencing profound triumph, others are experiencing deep despair and still others are concerned about what an administration led by a non-politician will look like. President-elect Donald Trump’s victory has emboldened some people to commit acts of harassment and intimidation. Young people at primary and secondary schools and universities across the nation are experiencing racist graffiti, anti-immigration chants, Islamophobic slurs and other hateful behavior.
As educators, it is our job to ensure that all students are safe to learn in an environment where they can be their full, authentic selves, where they can learn and live the values of equality, civility, freedom and justice for all. While it may be difficult sometimes, that responsibility includes helping children who exhibit anger, negativity or bias to reflect on their emotions and behave in a way that does not harm others. (Teachers should use culturally responsive practices as they reflect on, identify and work to understand and support students’ emotions.) Doing this requires, in part, that we practice and model the skills of emotional intelligence, which can be defined as the ability to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate our emotions productively and effectively—particularly when adults in the public eye are not demonstrating these skills. Such skills of emotional intelligence can be channeled toward creating a more compassionate, equitable and just society.
So, what can we do right now?
- Check in with yourself. Ask yourself: How am I feeling? What are the causes and consequences of my feelings? Whatever you are feeling, it is acceptable. Checking in with ourselves will help us to understand how we are feeling so that we can effectively manage our emotions and behave in ways that ensure the safety of all children. Adults at school dictate the emotional climate, which influences the school community’s well-being and students’ ability to learn. Our students need us to be present and empathetic as many of them struggle to make sense of our country’s new “normal.”
- Create a safe space to discuss how everyone is feeling. A safe space is crucial for students’ sharing how they are feeling. And every day is an opportunity to discuss with students what a safe space looks, feels and sounds like. Once students have communicated what their safe space is, create opportunities—like journal writing, one-on-one check-ins and art projects—for them to share how they are feeling about the election and in general. Then design an action plan with students that helps everyone support the classroom’s safe space. Creating safe spaces in classrooms allows students to share their ideas without fear or ridicule—even when they have an unpopular idea—and, in turn, helps students learn to disagree civilly.
- Engage in activities that build empathy. Teaching students a lesson on what empathy is explicitly is a great start, but providing students with opportunities to build empathy is even more important. For one, any time students have to make an argument, whether for a debate or paper, ask them to make a counterargument to it as well. Doing so allows students to perceive the world from a different point of view. Additionally, build service-learning opportunities into your instruction so that your students learn to experience the world outside of their realities and to feel empowered to serve others. Role plays are also an opportunity for students to build empathy. Just as important, we must model empathy by acknowledging our students’ perspectives before responding to them.
- Use literature and other texts to build emotional intelligence. When analyzing a character or figure in texts, ask students how that individual might be feeling. Push students to elaborate on their thinking by asking why they believe a character is experiencing a certain emotion. Particularly, we might ask students what in the written description or imagery (a character’s facial expression, body language, physiology and vocal tone) confirms their understanding of what the individual is feeling. This approach allows for students to recognize emotions, understand the causes and consequences of emotions, and label emotions accurately.
- Provide opportunities for students to create emotion-management strategies, and help them co-regulate when they need support. Help students identify strategies that shift them into an optimal emotional state for learning or for completing a given task. When students are derailed by a particular emotion, remind them of their individual strategies and empower them to manage their emotions. We can also help by co-regulating student emotions through our practice. For instance, if we want to calm our students down for a lesson, we could play music with a slow tempo, ask them to read silently or have the lights dimmed. We could also take them through a deep breathing exercise. Alternatively, if we want students to be excited about a lesson at hand, we could play fast-paced music and ask them to engage in movement exercises (in a carefully managed way).
- Create opportunities for students to share their stories. When we create opportunities for students to share their narratives and to hear the narratives of others, we allow them to see and to experience the world in new ways. In our curricular choices, we can privilege narratives that offer “windows” and “mirrors” for students, which encourage our students to see the humanity in others.
Not being able to manage our emotions, express emotions for the given context or accurately recognize or label how we are feeling (or how others are feeling) can divide us and lead to often-avoidable conflict. These misunderstandings and misinterpretations of emotions strip us—and students—of opportunities to connect meaningfully and civilly with others. It is an imperative, then, to infuse emotionality into our instruction in the hopes of creating a more compassionate and just society, in hopes of shifting our divided states to the United States. Our young people deserve that much.
Simmons is a lifelong activist, educator and student of life from the Bronx, New York. She currently serves as the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.