The Effect of the Presidential Campaign on American Schoolchildren

The following was originally posted on from www.teachingtolerance.org:

Editor’s note: Teaching Tolerance is a nonpartisan organization and neither endorses political candidates nor engages in electioneering activities.

Between March 23 and April 2, 2016, Teaching Tolerance surveyed approximately 2,000 teachers, asking them how the presidential campaign was affecting their students and their teaching. A synthesis of our survey results make up the content of this report: The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools.

The results indicated that the campaign is having a profoundly negative impact on schoolchildren across the country, producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported. Many educators fear teaching about the election at all. Teachers also reported an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.

“We’re deeply concerned about the level of fear among minority children who feel threatened by both the incendiary campaign rhetoric and the bullying they’re encountering in school,” said Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen. “We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old, and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.”

The online survey was not scientific, but it provides a rich source of information about the impact of this year’s election on the country’s classrooms. The data, including 5,000 comments from educators, shows a disturbing nationwide problem, one that is particularly acute in schools with high concentrations of minority children.

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 fear, scared, afraid,anxious or terrified to describe the campaign’s impact on minority students.

Educators, meanwhile, are perplexed and conflicted about what to do. They report being stymied by the need to remain nonpartisan but disturbed by the anxiety in their classrooms and the lessons that children may be absorbing from this campaign.

“Schools are finding that their anti-bullying work is being tested and, in many places, falling apart,” said Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello, author of the report. “Most teachers seem to feel they need to make a choice between teaching about the election or protecting their kids. In elementary schools, half have decided to avoid it. In middle and high schools, we’re seeing more who have decided, for the first time, not to be neutral.”

The long-term impact on children’s well-being, their behavior or their civic education is impossible to gauge. Some teachers report that their students are highly engaged and interested in the political process this year. Others worry that the election is making them “less trusting of government” or “hostile to opposing points of view,” or that children are “losing respect for the political process.”

Teaching Tolerance urges educators to not abandon their teaching about the election, to use instances of incivility as teaching moments, and to support children who are hurt, confused or frightened by what they’re hearing from the candidates. If you’re an educator who is unsure how to teach about the rhetoric of the election or restore civility at your school, Teaching Tolerance encourage you to read its guide, Civil Discourse in the Classroom. Teaching Tolerance is also using the results of the survey to develop and compile the resources you need to teach about the election.

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