How to Build an Inclusive School Community During a Divisive Election

By Vicki Zakrzewski | April 28, 2016 | 0 comments

A new report finds that the presidential election is having a negative impact on students. What can educators do?

A new survey of almost 2,000 U.S. teachers revealed that the 2016 presidential campaign might be having a negative impact on students’ well-being and interactions with each other.

For example, educators have seen an increase in bullying and harassment of students whose racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds have been attacked during the campaign. They also report that some campaign rhetoric is triggering fear and anxiety in children of color:

While the survey did not identify candidates, more than 1,000 comments mentioned Donald Trump by name. In contrast, a total of fewer than 200 contained the names Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton. More than 500 comments contained the words fearscaredafraid, anxious, or terrified to describe the campaign’s impact on minority students.

Teaching Tolerance admits that their survey—titled The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools—establishes correlation, but only hints at causation: We can’t really know for sure if the rhetoric is actually causing the increase in identity-based bullying. It was also unscientific: They sent it only to their members, as well as members of other groups with similar missions. This is a self-selected group of teachers who most likely emphasize the value of diversity, equality, equity, and connection in their classrooms, which creates a bias. A stronger study would have recruited a randomized sample of educators.

But even accounting for those weaknesses—and regardless of one’s political leanings—we need to pay attention to this report.

When educators—whether it’s two or 2,000—report that students do not feel safe in their schools (or in their country, for that matter) and are hurling discriminatory insults at each other, this is no longer a political issue. It’s a human one—and a call to action for educators.

What pits students against each other?

Children need to feel safe to learn. Period. And a crucial part of cultivating that sense of safety is creating a school climate where everyone—staff and students alike—feels they belong, have value, and matter.

In today’s political climate, this can be tricky given that every school will have people who fall everywhere on the political spectrum (schools are a slice of humanity after all). But as the adults committed to the well-being of all of our students, we need to set aside our differences and work together to stop students from calling another student “criminals” or “terrorist” or “loser” or “deadbeat” because of their cultural and racial identities. These are words we’ve heard used in this year’s presidential debates, which are never okay to use against another human being.

Indeed, research on school connectedness has found that when students believe that both the adults and their peers care about them as individuals, they are more likely to succeed academically and engage in behaviors that increase their physical and mental well-being. And, pertinent to Teaching Tolerance’s report, having friends from several different social groups that integrate gender and race increases students’ sense of connection.

When many teachers and administrators are already doing so much to instill values of inclusiveness in their students, it can be alarming to see them suddenly behave in such a way. One educator wrote, “Any unity developed by Mix It Up at lunchtime [a program that encourages students to connect with someone new] has flown out the window.”

Obviously, students are copying the behavior of the adults they see running for president on TV; extensive research corroborates that the modeling of behavior is a powerful tool for learning. But for students to adopt such shocking behavior—which many of them probably know at their core to be wrong—it’s possible that something deeper than just the mimicking of adults is going on.

While the human psyche is very complex and difficult to understand, one clue may come from what renowned Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura calls moral disengagement. In his recent book on this topic, Bandura theorizes that people stop themselves from engaging in immoral acts because they want to maintain a sense of self-worth and uphold their moral standards. However, when faced with pressure from either the situation or others around them to act in ways that go against their moral standards—such as bullying or name-calling—people use various methods for justifying their choices that, at the same time, maintain their moral integrity.

Bandura describes eight ways we morally disengage. For instance, we might blame the victim (“it’s the woman’s fault that she got raped because of the way she was dressed”), or minimize personal responsibility (CEOs who claim not to have known about the unlawful actions of their employees), or we might ignore, distort, minimize, or disbelieve the effects of our harmful behavior (using weapon technology that increases the facelessness of the enemy).

Yet moral disengagement isn’t limited to large societal issues; it also occurs in our daily lives, including in our schools. Several studies have found that school bullies score higher than non-bullies on moral disengagement and justify their actions through strategies such as dehumanization of their victim and moral justification (bullying to fulfill a higher moral or social goal, such as “weeding out the weak”).

Could it be that the presidential campaign is creating an atmosphere that incentivizes bullying, by modeling the idea that victim-blaming, name-calling, and overpowering minorities is justified and the way to get ahead? We can’t say for sure. We only know that students’ interactions with each other are suddenly changing, but not in a positive direction.

Whatever the cause, it behooves all of us in education—even if we can’t control what is happening on the political stage or people’s responses to the drama—to increase our efforts at making sure all our students feel safe and welcome in our schools.

Here are some research-based ways to start.

1. Help students see the impact of harmful words

Bandura suggests that it’s easier to suppress our built-in empathic mechanisms that keep us from behaving in unkind ways when we can’t see how our actions affect others. Unfortunately, politicians don’t see the effect their words are having on students. But the teachers are seeing it.

“We heard about students from second grade to high school crying in class [and]….a California art teacher described a fifth-grader who had begun having ‘full-blown panic attacks,’” the report states.

Students, too, need to see the effects of their harmful slurs. Those on the receiving end may be too scared or shocked to reply in the moment and perhaps too confused to know whether or how to respond later. Thus, educators need to take the matter into their own hands and provide opportunities for students to share their experiences with each other.

SEL and mindfulness expert Linda Lantieri tells a story of how an activity she calls the “Social Barometer” helped one group of European-American students see the impact of racism on their African-American classmates.  In this activity, students respond to questions by placing themselves physically on a continuum that ranges from “1—It doesn’t bother me” to “3—I don’t know how I feel” to “5—I feel really, really upset.”

“When students were asked to move to how you feel when you’re called a name that has to do with your background,” explains Lantieri, “the responses were divided by race. The African-American students all went to 4 or 5 on the continuum, whereas the European-American students were all at 1.”

The students were then invited to say why they were standing where they were or to ask others about their choice. “The European-American students were confused about why the African-American students were all standing on 4 or 5, so they asked them why,” says Lantieri. “The students told them, ‘because this happens to us almost every week.’ The other students were able to visually see and hear the impact of racism on their classmates and that was what was so powerful.”

2. Encourage students to find their “Shared Identity”

As stated above, schoolyard bullies often stifle their moral inclinations by “dehumanizing” their victims, or viewing them as sub-human without any feelings or concerns—a practice, according to researchers, used to engage people in genocide or in everyday divisive in-group/out-group ethnic, racial, and religious conflicts and one that has been found to correlate with the belief that some groups should maintain dominance over others.

To help students “humanize” each other, have them complete the Shared Identity practice found on Greater Good in Action:

  • Think of a person in your life who seems to be very different from you in every way that you can imagine. They might have different interests, different religious or political beliefs, or different life experiences. They may belong to a group that has been in conflict with a group to which you belong.
  • Next, make a list of all of the things that you most likely share in common with this person. Perhaps you go to the same school or like the same sport. At the broadest level, you both belong to the human species, which means that you share 99.9 percent of your DNA.
  • Review this list of commonalities. How do they make you see this person in a new light? Instead of simply seeing this person as someone unfamiliar to you, or as a member of an out-group, now try to see this person as an individual, one whose tastes and experiences might overlap with yours in certain ways.

By listing all the things they might have in common with someone who looks different than they do or who may have different beliefs, students can overcome their fear and distrust of that person through the simple reminder of their shared identities. As a result, they may be more inclined to show compassion and cooperation towards that person.

3. Bring out students’ innate kindness

Bandura reminds us that even while many people may morally disengage, there is “equally striking evidence that most people refuse to behave cruelly.” Indeed, much research exists showing that, even at a very young age, our capacity for altruism and compassion may be greater than that for selfishness and cruelty.

So, rather than focusing on the ugly side of ourselves that separates us from each other and causes undue harm, offer students opportunities to demonstrate kindness, respect, and compassion for one another.

One of my favorite examples of this is The Breakfast Club—a group of students at a middle school who performed anonymous acts of kindness for the entire school, students and staff alike, transforming the climate of the school in the process.

Another powerful method might be to ask the students how they would address this campaign’s critical issues such as immigration and income inequality with compassion for everyone involved. Indeed, research has found that students who are directly taught to consider an issue from each party’s viewpoint are better able to devise solutions that benefit all concerned groups.

When summing up his thoughts on why we morally disengage from what we know in ourselves to be the right behavior, Bandura states in an interview: “The difference is who do you include in your category of humanity and who do you exclude from your category of humanity.”

A question, at this moment in human history, we all need to answer.

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About The Author

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center.


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