As we near the culmination of this emotionally charged fall, many of us are feeling anxious and uncertain, not only about how the election results will impact us, but also about how to talk about these issues with our children. In an insightful recent interview, Scott Baytosh, Head of Alexandria Country Day School, shared his suggestions for helping children navigate difficult political topics and develop objective political views. We were fortunate enough to set up our own interview with him to discuss strategies for talking about the election with kids. We talked about what these election lessons really teach us about the importance of social-emotional learning and Emotional Intelligence for children, and frankly adults of all ages.
Fast forward to November 9th, the results are in, now what? What do we do in the aftermath of this divisive election and how to we explain it to our kids?
As we know, it won’t be "over" on the 9th, and it’s unlikely that we’re going to experience a great wave of national relief. We really don’t know yet what the aftermath of this election is going to look like. With that sense of uncertainty, it’s important that we prepare carefully for how kids will respond.
What steps can we take to prepare?
First, as adults we need to self regulate, stay conscious of our own anxiety and do our best not to pull our children into those feelings. Our children are not as encumbered by history and emotional baggage about these complex issues as we are. It’s important that we don't project our anxiety onto the kids in our lives. While they are certainly aware of the weight of events, they tend to recover quickly. We can learn from their resilience.
Second, we can start shifting the focus to the future -- looking forward, instead of back. We can begin to ask ourselves how we can make things better, come back together, and begin to heal as a country. This is an optimistic conversation to have with children and one that fosters hope rather than despair.
In order to do this, it’s crucial that we create safe spaces for dialogue, encouraging our kids to share how they’re feeling, and talking about the emotions we’re experiencing as well.
How do we create safe spaces?
By practicing social-emotional skills when the stakes are low. Starting with less complex and stressful topics, we can practice skills of respectful dialogue, listening, empathy, and questioning.
At our school, advisory groups are one important safe space for our students. Our middle school students meet in these groups for 20 minutes, four mornings a week. They use "Circle of Power and Respect" which is a model recommended by the Developmental Designs program.
Why isn’t this emphasized more in kid’s development? What gets in the way?
As with most things, often it’s a lack of time. The process of creating a safe space and having authentic dialogue unfolds slowly. So when we’re working with limited time, our messages often feel perfunctory and pedantic.
Another hurdle is our tendency, as adults, to control the dialogue, meeting our children’s questions with one assertion after another. Instead of a dialogue, we often fall back on lecturing about character education and social emotional learning. We need to resist this urge, and instead engage in more listening and questioning. It is important to keep our power in check to facilitate healthy, safe and open relationships with kids. By listening and questioning we validate our children’s voices and empower them to develop their ideas.
How do we know we’re successful?
We know we're successful when the interactions are authentic and kids own the skills and processes of respectful dialogue and conflict engagement.
This type of learning is only successful if we can build trust and empathy. To achieve that we have to lead the way, modeling active listening and empathetic responses. Kids watch us very closely and they are acutely sensitive to hypocrisy. Asking questions, and using phrases like “Maybe I have this wrong…” can go a long way in making a child feel seen and understood. We have to model empathy before we can ask it of the kids in our lives.
What would be your wish for social-emotional education?
First, that we do more of it and prioritize this as a value for our nation. Most importantly we need to ensure that the skills of social-emotional learning become internalized by kids more, so that these practices don’t always need to be initiated and led by adults. That’s why the work of the Meeting House and other Social Emotional Learning programs is so important. By providing kids with the tools of inquiry and critical thinking and affording them opportunities to practice, kids very much CAN be empowered to work things out themselves without adult guidance. I think that’s the ultimate goal. To hear kids, on their own, saying things like “Let’s talk this through,” using “I feel” statements, and taking turns in conversation. When I see kids do that - and I do - it gives me great hope for the future.