Saturday, November 12, 2016

Talking About the Election with Young Children

"I didn't mean to vote for that bad man!  I made a mistake!" (A. Age 6)
"We don't say bad words, right? Why is he saying bad words." (E. Age 4)
"I will miss my friends. My mom says we can't live here anymore." (I. Age 6)

This week the election brought a range of emotions into our homes, schools, and communities.  It brought some emotions that children can identify and others that are more complex.  Faced with confusion and curiosity a young child might say of a crying friend, "He is sad." or "Why is he crying?" This is the foundation of social emotional learning and how we respond further shapes how children feel and develop understanding.

In many communities children observed adult behavior related to election and responded.  They felt the tension in the months and weeks before and in the days that followed. They were exposed to the media and conversations and thus experience emotions they cannot identify or come to terms with. They feel confusion and often fear.

I spoke to educators across the country this week, especially my early childhood counterparts in Cambridge and Boston, and the stories were the same.

  • Children being asked by peers if they were born here. 
  • Girls being called "fat pigs" and being told, "now we can say that".
  • Being told, "Go back to your country!" from across the cafeteria, playground, campus, etc.
  • High school students in our communities are snap chatting photos of their suitcases as a symbol of what might come. 

What should we tell the children?  In many cases it depends on the children and what are they asking about and talking about.  What fears might they have? In places like Somerville, with immigrant communities, the fears are palpable.  Children are afraid of being sent away, of being separated from friends and family.  The Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, the family engagement arm of Somerville Public Schools, hosted a gathering for families just after the election, with bilingual family liaisons present, to answer questions about what the results will mean for them.  Over 100 families attended demonstrating a need for information. Schools and communities are addressing the election results with strategies often used in trauma situations.  And this is the right approach for many children and families who need reassurance.

I spoke to some teachers who questioned how they might engage children in the democratic process in the future. Many children had direct experiences with the election through a typical mock voting activity.  I saw many classrooms where teachers had pictures of each candidate and children could vote by putting their own small photo under the candidate.  I strongly question the efficacy of this exercise.  The day after the election brought guilt for children who felt they had made a mistake, voted for "the bad man", or were chastised for their vote by others. A more appropriate voting activity might be to have children vote for something that is meaningful to them like the color of the next batch of playdoh or which story to read at meeting.  In this way children experience developmentally appropriate disappointment, a perfectly okay feeling to experience, and the process of decision making in a group.

A four year old used a stencil and her own details to express her desire for change.

Debbie LeeKeenan from Lesley University and John Nimmo from Portland State have written extensively about and addressing children's issues via an anti-bias stance.  Their piece about talking with children in challenging times provides some direction for teachers to use this week. They advise:

  • Begin with self reflection.
  • Create a climate for dialogue and inquiry with children and adults.
  • Unpack and be prepared for possible classroom scenarios.
  • Move beyond either/or thinking.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides guidance and resources for teachers on a variety of topics - a few of the ideas in this post urge us to:

  • Begin within - How will you prepare yourself to engage in conversations with children?
  • Get back to instruction - What read-alouds make sense in the coming weeks?
  • Strengthen the classroom community - How will you build connections and kindness?

On a basic level, being an early childhood educator is about teaching kindness, as this blog post from the Newtowne School in Cambridge demonstrates.  

We would love to hear your stories of how you are handling the post-election climate, get more resources to disseminate, and to know what children in your classroom are saying and doing.  Please share your stories with us at

Children are asking.  Children are watching.   What will you say?  What will you do?