Sense of Hope Can Provide Healing for Students and Educators in This Post-Election Season

12/05/2016 02:55 pm ET
Education in America since the 2016 Election
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Education in America since the 2016 Election

Today, as we continue to delve in trouble spots since the 2016 Presidential Election, I have the honor of interviewing a practicing Licensed Professional Counselor, and CT-Certified School Counselor and Teacher, Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, of Ridgefield, Connecticut. We all - as educators, parents, guardians, other family members, citizens and emigres - want to have a safer America where we each can find a piece of the “American Dream.”

With that said, there are a not of negative influences that we need to carefully navigate in order to reflect a consistent sense of hope to our youth. Bear in mind, people both in and out of the media may use negative journalism to promote their positions or work towards a short-term goal that is not healthy for students in the long-term. Thus, this can lead to a cyclical type of exploitation by the media which in turn can inflict deep wounds on our youth.

I want us today to call for a nationwide response of nurturing and healing toward our youth. And I’m so thankful to have linked shoulders with Kelley today to get her views which I know are in sync. This article is aimed toward helping everyone in our great land, whether young or old, rich or poor, in places of power or in places where power is needed. The adults in this group might be Democrats, Republicans, Green and Libertarian Parties, and so forth, but the goal is for us all to come together and address the needs of our youth post-election.

If we do not take the responsibility in front of us and model a better solution than the present, then who will? The responsibility is ours and ours alone.

In this first part of a two-part series, we will focus on three areas:

  • The effect the 2016 Presidential Election may have had on building and maintaining trust with K-12 and college students, especially students with emotional difficulties.
  • Ways to nurture a climate where students can feel a greater level of visible respect people who have different beliefs than they do. And that is something that we as adults need to model for our young people.
  • A deeper understanding of how a young brain works to take in information and how the brain prioritizes negative over the positive.
  • Note: Part 2 of this series will review strategies and ways to manage to emphasize hope to our youth.

With all that said, let me get to the business of having an interview with Kelley.

Jonathan: Again, Kelley, thanks for meeting with me today. To begin with, it’s certainly troubling what we are seeing in America right this minute. The Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org, reports that since the 2016 Presidential Election just under a month ago, there were at least 867 incidents of Hateful Harassment in the US - actually in just ten days from Nov. 8-17. This is troubling because students - our nation’s young people - are watching as an unfortunate downturn in ethics is being played out. And many students have been the recipients of these hateful events.

(1) Bearing that in mind, do you think that the current national election poses concerns for educators in schools and/or maintaining of trust with students?

Kelley: This is an interesting question, and it makes me think of how trust is formed. Generally, if school staff members in schools are kind, consistent and fair, then students are more likely trust them to varying degrees. Thus, trust is reduced if even one school staff becomes unreliable in some sense, including, engaging in negative, one-sided political talk, and/or, when multiple school staff members are apathetic in general about politics, which can discourage students from forming their own opinions and progressing toward participating in our national elections.

Jonathan: I couldn’t agree with you more about this. As I said earlier, students are watching us. They are watching our behaviors and our responses. So when adults learn to speak of accepting differing viewpoints and looking for positives even amidst challenging situations it sets them up to be more positive and hopeful. Unfortunately, if adults are whingeing about politics (that’s British English for ‘persistent complaining’) on a frequent basis, it shows students that having low expectations for other is okay. As you might guess, I’m enthusiastic that we as a society simply need to be more positive even in difficult times.

Kelley: You bring up some good points; we have to take a personal responsibility for the future of young people or else they won’t experience what hope feels like, which is an essential component that they need to develop. Let’s look at a negative example in a school; if a staff member engages in biased political statements, it can confuse students, since they expect school staff members to present both sides of a situation in a dignified and fair manner. Educators need to remember at all times that they have a powerful impact on shaping the minds of our youth, as teachers spend a significant amount of time with our kids— sometimes up to 30 hours per week with the same students, as in elementary school. This 2016 election has presented educators with a higher level of challenge in presenting multiple perspectives to young people. To that point, some of the perspectives we have seen from one of the candidates were deemed by many in the media and on social media, as racist and degrading to women and those with disabilities.

School staff are also challenged at this time because both presidential nominees each had strongly different views on multiple issues from climate change to a women’s right to choose. Schools walk a very fine line with these issues, trying to balance sensitive content with the data that is presented in the news, while also honoring the differing belief systems of the families that the students come from.

Jonathan: You mentioned a few things that I want to respond to. Regarding multiple viewpoints, this is quite true and we are a nation of multiple disagreeing viewpoints, as that is also part of a democracy. As hard as it can be for us to reconcile these differences, we have to remember that we are each responsible for ourselves, our families, and our loved ones. So how we deal with multiple perspectives begins there. In regard to your second topic, that of a women’s choices regarding her pregnancy, it is indeed a topic that is a lightening rod. I’d like to do a future series on this topic that might help people have a forum to share their views.

(2) On to the next question; in terms of the national election, are there added concerns for working with students that have emotional difficulties?

Kelley: At one time or another, all students, all people, have some level of emotional challenges that they are dealing with. Some students do have significantly more issues, which really do affect their day-to-day functioning. These students that have elevated emotional and/or physical issues, are sometimes identified in school systems and other times they have not yet been identified (or potentially might not ever be). In general, students who are dealing with more emotional challenges than their peers can feel stronger, more intense emotions which can be good when they are feeling joy, as we really notice how “alive” these students are, so full of life and not being afraid to show/voice it.

Jonathan: Again, I couldn’t agree with you more. And quite likely, the documented number of incidents of hateful harassment since the 2016 election must have been more difficult for students with emotional difficulties (whether an instance happened to them, or they observed it in their area, or the learned about it happening elsewhere).

Kelley: That’s correct. What I have observed is that when students with emotional challenges experience negative emotions, oftentimes, the feelings can become distorted with an over-focus on the worst-case scenario. This has left many students with emotional difficulties experiencing excessive fear, especially, if they are an undocumented minority student, as some of the discussion from this election focused on what the future may be like for them and their families. Unfortunately, when they heard the message of “the wall” and other statements about Muslims, it has also trickled down to other students, who are either born here or are here legally, it has made some feel like there is real cause for concern. Overall, this contributes to anxiety for an age group that already deals with a considerable amount of self-doubt and comparing themselves to others.

In the midst of fear and concern, educators and school staff need to reflect back to students that they are safe, that they are heard, and that their thoughts and feelings really do matter. This empathic listening on behalf of the school systems goes a long way in soothing students concerns and fears about the next four years. We need to emphasize to these students that time will pass and that politics is not always permanent, people can change their political views, be voted out of office, and so there is always hope for change. Reminding these, and all students, that change is also happening right now, that change is always flowing, even though it sometimes seems impossible for a young mind to wait.

Jonathan: Empathic listening is really a skill-set that needs to be taught to educators. It begins with thoughtful, nonjudgmental listening. It can include asking clarifying questions or summarizing what is heard. It also includes maintaining confidentiality when a student confides, excluding threats of danger to self and/or others. And lastly, empathic listening means that the educator is ready to honor a person’s pain - empathize with it - and not necessarily offer solutions or quick fixes. We are all in a process of growth at various times across life. And having trusted people simply listen to us allows us to listen to ourselves, think about what we are saying/doing, and also have a more reasonable outlook towards making good choices. Great points so far, Kelley!

(3) Well, here is the last question for part one of this series. Could the current national drama, negativity and protests, as we have previously mentioned be a negative catalyst for some young people and if so, how can we as adults help them? To set the stage for your response, I want to provide some real example of hateful harassment that has occurred in our nations schools since the 2016 election (all from the SPL Centers 11/18/2016 Update):

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16-year-old African-American student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California went to the bathroom during fifth period on Wednesday and spotted the words "whites" and "colored" scrawled on the wall over the urinal.

In Massachusetts: 

A friend of mine is a Muslim who wears a scarf on her head (not a hijab), along with dresses that go to the ground. It is obvious she is Muslim. At the subway stop, someone passed by her and said that Trump is going to kick her out of the country.

In Texas: 

On Nov 14 a prof of Native American studies found a flyer on his bulletin board on his door reading "Are you sick of anti-white propaganda in college? You are not alone"

In Washington state: 

The day a racial slur was discovered spray-painted on Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, dozens of people gathered in solidarity to denounce the act and paint over the red graffiti. Staff at the center found the graffiti on the side of the building when they came in to work Tuesday morning. Freda Gandy, the center’s director, said some of the children saw it before heading to school. “Our kids should not have to see this,” she said. “It’s not OK.”

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Kelley: These are terrible incidents and remind me of similar ones I have seen in the news. For, I also saw school walkouts by students in Maryland, racist graffiti in a Minnesota school, and response of teachers, including a resilient teacher in Philadelphia who said,

“They [students] are upset, and they think that somehow this new president can change things right away, but as educators and people they trust, we need to keep reminding them that they are cared for and protected and, as much as we can, we’re going to stick up for them.” - Angela B.

In terms of brain chemistry, we have to look first to the fact that a typical brain finishes its development at age 28. Therefore, we know that younger people are not fully able to understand all of the subtle and overt messages from this 2016 election year. If we look now to someone that has an identified or unidentified emotional issue and/or learning disability, they still may have delayed development, which affects the ability to see different perspectives, cognitive ability, and ability to empathize what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. And yes, some young brains will be attracted to the negative energy that is going on presently, struggling to see things clearly, engaging in black and white thinking, as the brain prioritizes chaos over peace, it “wakes up” and pays attention to the chaotic information first.

We as adults can serve as strong role models to help young people by self-regulating our own emotions, which means becoming less reactive to stress and negative stimuli. We can serve as the “roots of their tree”, by creating a strong and stable environment for them, and helping them weather storms while maintaining this stability. I like the metaphor of the tree, as it can go through harsh extremes but still come back strong and flourish.

In turn, we need look at what makes kids resilient, and in the 2016 election, as much as we may be saddened as to what our children were exposed to, our kids have been provided with lessons, both positive and negative. They have been able to hear sound bites, in school, on the bus, from their families, and have reacted strongly to the messages that were unkind and dividing, these messages came from both the Republican and Democratic camps. This article is not aimed at debating which side provided more or fewer negative messages. Rather, we must focus on solutions.

Finding positive events and news is one way to rewire the brain to look for hope. One movement that reports more heavily on positive stories is, Positive News, an online magazine started in 1992, which states “it’s a movement with a vision for an inspiring, balanced media”. This online journal is supported by its’ readers worldwide, and “it relies on membership subscriptions and profits are reinvested in developing world-leading constructive journalism.”

There is also a measure of exposure to several kinds of childhood trauma called the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Scale, which measures abuse and neglect. I’m wondering if at some point in history, a scale will be developed to measure the impact of our severely divided political parties in relation to how kids deal with conflict? Quite often they don’t see people from different parties welcoming each other and honoring their divergent points of view. What would life like if our children could see this? What would it be like if they could feel the respect that people who have different beliefs have for each other?

Jonathan: Well, Kelley, thank you very much! These are also some great closing points and some questions that I am going to leave to the reader for now. By the way, the ACE Scale you mentioned has six questions and is pretty easy to locate online in various studies that have used it.

I actually have Casey Gwinn’s 2015 book, Cheering for the Children, in front of me right now. Thanks for recommending it! He created Camp Hope which is a type of treatment center for children exposed to domestic violence and other traumas/abuse. Although we are not equating the abuse and neglect that countless children can be exposed to, to the effect of this current election, it can be helpful to view the questions when working with students who display emotional difficulties/challenges. Gwinn’s book chronicles the use of the ACE Scale in their course of treatment. I was touched by his words:

“It needs to be the calling of our generation and our children’s generation to figure out how to change the endings for those living with the impacts of high ACE scores and significant childhood trauma.” - C. Gwinn, p. 255.

I am reproducing the 6 questions of the ACE scale below for our readers. Obviously, students who are well acclimated in this election season will score lower than those who are at a higher likelihood of suffering with the continual presence of division and conflict. See page 26 of the linked document, or I’ve repeated that text below. Again, thank you Kelley and our readers will look forward to part two of this series!

Kelley: Happy to help, Jonathan! Keep in touch.

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The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Scale, from C.R. Snyder and colleagues

Also known as: The Children's Hope Scale

Directions: The six sentences below describe how children think about themselves and how they do things in general. Read each sentence carefully. For each sentence, please think about how you are in most situations. Place a check inside the circle that describes YOU the best. For example, place a check (√) in the circle (O) above "None of the time," if this describes you. Or, if you are this way "All of the time," check this circle. Please answer every question by putting a check in one of the circles. There are no right or wrong answers.

1. I think I am doing pretty well. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

2. I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are most important to me. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

3. I am doing just as well as other kids my age. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

4. When I have a problem, I can come up with lots of ways to solve it. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

5. I think the things I have done in the past will help me in the future. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

6. Even when others want to quit, I know that I can find ways to solve the problem. (choose one)

None of the time | A little of the time | Some of the time | A lot of the time | Most of the time | All of the time

Notes: When administered to children, this scale is not labeled "The Children's Hope Scale," but is called "Questions About Your Goals." The total Children's' Hope Scale score is achieved by adding the responses to the six items, with "None of the time" =1; "A little of the time" = 2; "Some of the time" = 3; "A lot of the time" = 4; "Most of the time" = 5; and, "All of the time" = 6. The three odd-numbered items tap agency, and the three even-numbered items tap pathways.

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Dr. Jonathan Doll normally writes on the Huffington Post blog covering topics of school engagement and wellness. He is the author of the 2015 book, Ending School Shootings: School and District Tools for Prevention and Action.

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