As our collective anxieties grow in the face of an uncertain presidential election result, many of us in the United States are wondering: What will we do when we enter our classrooms in these days after the election?
Let’s name the situation for what it is: Many of our students are experiencing this period as a traumatic time. Amid the triple upheavals of the pandemic, the movements against structural anti-Black violence, and the election, we are collectively overwhelmed in a way that makes it challenging for us to actually listen to one another at a deep level without reactivity and projection. This polarization and conflict call for a trauma-informed approach in our classrooms.
No matter who you are supporting for the presidency, the fact remains that our classrooms and our society are bitterly divided over what democracy means. This divide makes it harder to learn from and to trust one another. And against the backdrop of the political and social turmoil of 2020, the idea of walking into class amid further uncertainty about the future is an overwhelming thought. How do we maintain our neutrality in a classroom where there may be intense political polarization and disagreement? Do we even want to maintain neutrality? How do we support ourselves, let alone our students, while we reckon with an election result and backlash to it that could have lasting implications for many, including immigrant students, students of color, and LGBTQ students? How do we support and acknowledge all our students, even those whose valid political positions contrast sharply with our own?
To be sure, some educators may feel that the safest way to navigate the moment is to sidestep conversations about the election altogether. Many of us have nightmares of hosting an antagonistic class shouting match on Zoom in these days after the election. This outcome is counterproductive, risks polarizing our classrooms to an even greater degree, and doesn’t help us come to a new perspective together. Yet retreating to the syllabus or lesson plan as if our classroom is hermetically sealed from the social and political world risks making our teaching irrelevant. Moreover, sidestepping this discussion risks silencing the voices and perspectives of those vulnerable populations who may suffer the consequences of this election the most.
How do we support and acknowledge all of our students, even those whose valid political positions contrast sharply with our own?
We need to encourage our students to self-reflect and take ownership of their positions rather than get caught in projections about those they politically oppose. We also need to provide resources that address both the discomfort that arises when students confront positions divergent from their own and the fear that many students have right now in the midst of this chaotic and antagonistic election season.
Here are three simple but effective practices that can help us work with election-related fear and polarization in the classroom (in person or online), recognizing that stress is held in the body and nervous system. These practices are especially effective for students from grades 6-12, though the first two practices can also be used with younger students. Even if you don’t feel ready to use these practices with your students, using them by yourself before you enter the classroom to regulate your own nervous system can be a powerful way to begin class from a stable place emotionally.
- Slow it down. It can be difficult to take in new information and to learn when our nervous systems are cycling so quickly. It is also easy for conversations to become conflictual or disengaged if many participants are in a sped-up state. Moreover, trauma itself is a result of experiences that are either too much or too fast for the nervous system to process. The purpose of slowing down is to bring the nervous system to a healthier pace to allow it to regulate itself. Slowing down can be practiced at the beginning of the class, as well as at any time during the class that you notice that there is dysregulation or a sped-up quality among students. You can do this simply by slowing down the pace of your speaking or relaxing the speed of transitions between activities. Just taking the time to notice the pace of one’s nervous system itself begins to slow things down.
- Feel the ground. Often when we are activated or “triggered,” we tend to orient to the upper parts of our bodies or disconnect from our bodies altogether. We can help slow down the nervous system further by sensing the lower parts of the body, such as the sit bones and the feet, which allows the nervous system to settle and regulate itself. You can take a few moments at the beginning of class for this practice or you can use it to help ground students during a discussion, perhaps when you notice that tensions are rising. Students can then begin to perceive what is happening in the room through the lens of regulation, rather than through the more limited lens of a survival response.
- Engage in an inquiry practice. Inquiry is a way of strengthening our capacity for self-reflection. Instead of focusing on the question of “what is wrong with them,” we can shift our attention to what is arising for ourselves, including painful or charged memories from our personal or intergenerational history. An inquiry practice gives students (and ourselves) the space to make contact with their own experience and feelings around the election before engaging in a potentially activating conversation with others on the topic.
In a trauma-informed approach to inquiry, you give students questions that help them to delve into the specifics of their own experience, such as: Journal about your experience as it relates to the election outcome. What emotions, impressions, and bodily sensations are you noticing as you reflect on the election? What are some things that feel supportive for you just now as you reflect on the elections? These kinds of inquiry questions allow us to find agency even as we sit with seemingly hopeless or challenging circumstances.
These are just three simple practices that can be easily incorporated into your plans for the days and weeks after the election. They can be adapted for any discipline and grade level and they will help you and your students feel more regulated and connected during these precarious times.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Election Was Traumatizing for Many Students (and Educators)