It’s been described as the most important election of our lifetime. And it’s happening as an ongoing pandemic keeps schools and businesses closed, as police brutality and racial injustice spur protests in the streets, and as the civic pillars of America’s democracy are increasingly called into question. Results may be delayed—and disputed.
Stressed out? You’re hardly alone. Two in three U.S. adults say this election has been a major source of worry, according to the October “Stress in America” survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.
Presidential elections have always provided a teachable moment as well as excitement and anxiety for teachers and students. But this contest has felt different, says Todd Flory, a fourth grade teacher at Wheatland Elementary School in Andover, Kan.
“Students can feel the political divide somewhat even though they may not recognize or understand it,” says Flory. “It sometimes feels like our national political division is palpable in a way that students can sense, perhaps simply from overhearing things on TV [or] comments made by parents at home.” As a result, he notes, “I do find myself being a bit more careful in how I frame things and making sure that I am not tipping my hat at all.”
That divisiveness has made topics related to politics a subject of increasing discomfort for teachers, observes Emma Humphries, chief education officer of iCivics, an education nonprofit that develops lesson plans and materials related to American civics.
“What is happening in the public is a reflection of what happens in Congress,” she says. “A lot of the collegialism has eroded, and we are a reflection of that.”
A former high school social studies teacher, Humphries has noticed “more instances of teachers being afraid and reluctant” about discussing the election in this year than in the past. Parents have called in to complain; principals will tell teachers to steer clear. “In some cases,” she adds, “teachers are making the decision themselves not to cover it.”
Helping students understand the political process is an important part of understanding what it means to be a citizen, and to dodge this election would be akin to ignoring the elephant in the room, says Humphries. “‘Are you going to cover the election?’ should never be a question that social studies teachers have to think twice about.”
Still, this election may well add to an already overflowing plate of stress and worry, especially for students and teachers who have had to adapt to remote instruction, Zoom classrooms and other new norms. In a week that will be riddled with emotion, elation, frustration, hope, loss and, above all, noise, here are ways to help them navigate election-related anxiety.
Let Kids Be Kids
For young children, says Jeffrey Knutsen, a senior producer at the education nonprofit Common Sense Media, “my advice to their parents and teachers is: Let them know that this is not something they should worry about handling. Tell them: ‘Just go be a kid! Someday you will be a part of this. But for now, just go and be a kid.’”
For older students, he suggests taking the opportunity to “leverage their interest to have conversations about democracy and what civil discourse means.” It can be an exercise in empathy and self-recognition. “It’s important to discuss our biases, and how they color how we interpret what we see in the coverage about the election. It’s important to also do some perspective taking, and try to understand how other people see things,” he adds.
Humphries echoes that point. “I encourage students and teachers alike not to curate such a tight ideological bubble that you are pigeonholed in your views,” she says. Though disagreements with others may flare, “remember that often these people are your friends, your neighbors, your fellow citizens.”
Knutsen emphasizes that during this time, it is also critical that parents and teachers model what respectful and civil discourse looks like, “especially if they are not seeing it from the adults in their lives or our elected officials.”
Consume in Moderation
Media—on television, social and elsewhere—will be covering the election around the clock. News updates could quickly become outdated as more information gets out by the minute.
The seemingly simple, though unrealistic, solution is to avoid it all. Our fixation is justified, says Humphries. But it could be distracting, unproductive and even unhealthy.
“My advice is moderation, in terms of both quantity and quality,” she suggests. “You don’t have to consume political content every single day or minute. You don’t even have to talk about it all the time with your class. You can decide to limit discussion to five minutes a day, about just the latest facts and updates.”
For quality, look to outlets that are less polarized and less sensational—even if they are a bit dry, says Humphries. “PBS NewsHour is a favorite of teachers. Look to outlets like that and others that just tell you what happened, without too much opinion and analysis.”
Be Skeptical, But Don’t Be Cynical
Credible news could be drowned out by information that is not. Social media will be teeming with misinformation (inaccurate information shared unintentionally) and disinformation (falsehoods spread deliberately)—especially if definitive election results take longer than usual to come in. A survey from Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 4 in 5 Americans are concerned that misinformation spread on the web will influence the outcome.
“Be aware that we are all potentially going to be targeted with information that is less than factual,” says Knutsen.
“There is a tendency that when we say ‘question everything,’ to just become cynical, and we don’t want that,” Knutsen adds. “You can teach students that it is important to question everything, but that not everything is equally questionable.” Specific to the election, Common Sense Media has a guide to help teachers and students navigate news and media.
Teachers play an important role in helping students suss out what sources are credible and what’s not, and to draw the line about what is open to debate—and what isn’t.
“I think often educators make the mistake of only covering facts versus opinions, when in reality we should be teaching facts versus opinion versus false statements,” says Flory, the Kansas teacher. “People often think that if something isn’t a fact, then it must be an opinion. And each person is entitled to their own opinion, so all opinions are equally valid. That is simply not true.”
Don’t rush to judgment, and slow down and think before you share anything. “Bad actors are relying on you to share bad information,” says Knutsen. “Chaos only grows if we help spread it.”
“Social media is your breaking news broken,” he adds. “That is the situation that we’re going to be in. There is going to be information that everybody wants that nobody has, and in that gap, people who have an agenda are going to step in.”
Encourage Respect and Resilience
Teachers should expect questions from students if results are delayed and disputed. In such instances, Humphries says, “it’s okay for you to say, ‘I’m not sure.’ Contentious elections are not unique, and you can use it as an inquiry-oriented activity to discuss the history of other close elections.”
Many elections have not been decided on Election Day—most recently, the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, who won after a disputed recount in Florida.
After President Trump offered an ambivalent response to questions about a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, teachers asked the iCivics team about whether they had resources on this topic, recalls Humphries. In response, her staff created an infographic on this topic as part of its collection of election-related resources.
Regardless of whether the next President is Joe Biden or Donald Trump, many students will feel like they lost.
“I think of this as an incredible lesson in resilience if you’re on the losing side, and empathy if you are on the winning side,” says Humphries. “For many of us who’ve participated in elections, we’ve been on both sides. Remind students to be respectful, that they are all classmates, and be clear that no one should come into class gloating” if their preferred candidate has won.
“And for kids who show up the next day disappointed,” Humphries adds, “talk about resilience, talk about past elections where results didn’t turn out in your favor. Remind them that life still happens.”