We need emotional intelligence now more than ever

At hearing the news that Donald Trump had won the presidential election a few weeks ago, I suddenly fell into deep despair and sadness. I became paralyzed with fear. It was as if every trauma I’ve ever experienced came to the surface. My lifelong speculation based on my life experiences had been confirmed—our country is rooted in deep hate for those who do not fall within the status quo. And, I, despite my access to institutions of privilege and power, am among those who do not fit neatly within the ruling class. I am still a child of immigrants, still a Black woman, and still from the inner city with the stench of poverty still on my clothes.

In my broken-heartedness, I immediately worried about our young people. What message will Trump’s win send to them? How could a man, a bully in his own right, be the next commander-in-chief? How do we teach our young people to be compassionate and kind? How do we teach them to be open-minded to diverse people and perspectives? How do we explain the importance of effective conflict-resolution and social and emotional skills? How do we teach self-control? How—when President-elect Trump does not model any of these skills or qualities?

In schools and universities throughout the nation, we have already seen a surge of harassment and victimization. In Wellesley, Massachusetts, two white male students from Babson College drove around Wellesley College and gleefully harassed black students. In Detroit, Latino middle-school students cried as their peers yelled “build a wall.” In Minnesota at Maple Grove Senior High School, students were confronted by racist graffiti in their bathrooms. There is a litany of similar hateful incidents that have transpired across the country. In fact, more than 700 incidents of harassment and intimidation have since been reported on Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.

The damage has been done. Hate is oozing out of every crevice, every classroom, and every office building. Donald Trump’s America is a hateful and scary America. Whether he won or not, his rhetoric of hate had already colonized our minds—causing those of us on the margins to live in fear and anxiety and emboldening others to hate openly and proudly. Throughout this election season, we saw and heard his bigotry stream over and over again on our TV and computer screens and on our radios and smart phones. Donald Trump did not do all of this damage alone. He had the help of the media, who allowed him to dominate airtime and who reported about this election cycle with words like battle, battleground, and war, engendering violence.

And, our young people were watching and listening—and learning—the whole time. Now, we are left struggling to reconcile the behaviors, values, and skills we tell our children are important with Trump’s unfavorable actions and speech that have been validated by his presidential win—and inadvertently—by the media. This divisive election cycle should force us to look at ourselves in the mirror and to see who we, as a nation, have allowed ourselves to become—lured by money and fame and the illusion of power that comes with both. Why are we surprised that Donald Trump is president when America made him a star, a household name, well before his presidential run, for being exactly who he is?

To be sure, the mass police shootings of Black men and women should have been enough of a wake-up call to be better and to do more. However, despite how #woke many Americans, particularly liberal-leaning white Americans, have become after the preventable murders of Black people, the shock that many are experiencing post-election is indicative that they never knew America (US) like I and so many marginalized groups already do. We had always experienced America for who she is—a closet racist, homophobe, transphobe, ableist, islamophobe, fat-phobe, sexist, and bigot. While Donald Trump is the caricature of all of that, this is an America that existed well before he exposed her. This is a truth that so many from marginal backgrounds had been trying to tell our fellow citizens, but this truth must have been too much to bear.

Trump’s win has created the necessary clarity for the work we need to do as a nation as well as the urgency for movement building and action that is guided by love, not hate. For one, it is crucial that adults, especially those who work with youth, learn and model the skills of emotional intelligence, which can be defined as the ability to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate our emotions productively and effectively. Now, more than ever, we are in need of emotional intelligence so that we can begin to use the power of emotions to create a more compassionate, equitable, and just society. The election results left our nation overcome with intense emotions; some Americans are experiencing profound triumph. Others, like me, are experiencing deep despair, and still others are either concerned about what electing a non-politician will look like. As a nation, we are emotionally hijacked by the intensity of how we are feeling, clouding us from recognizing the humanity in each other.

So, what can we do now? In particular, what can educators do?

  • Check in with yourself. Ask yourself: How am I feeling? What are the causes and consequences of my feelings? Whatever you are feeling, it is acceptable. Checking in with ourselves will help us to understand how we are feeling so that we can effectively manage our emotions and behave in ways that ensure the safety of all children. Adults at school dictate the emotional climate, which influences the school community’s well-being and students’ ability to learn. Our students need us to be present and empathetic as many of them struggle to make sense of our country’s new “normal.”
  • Create a safe space to discuss how everyone is feeling. A safe space is crucial for students’ sharing how they are feeling. And every day is an opportunity to discuss with students what a safe space looks, feels and sounds like. Once students have communicated what their safe space is, create opportunities—like journal writing, one-on-one check-ins and art projects—for them to share how they are feeling about the election and in general. Then design an action plan with students that helps everyone support the classroom’s safe space. Creating safe spaces in classrooms allows students to share their ideas without fear or ridicule—even when they have an unpopular idea—and, in turn, helps students learn to disagree civilly.
  • Engage in activities that build empathy. Teaching students a lesson on what empathy is explicitly is a great start, but providing students with opportunities to build empathy is even more important. For one, any time students have to make an argument, whether for a debate or paper, ask them to make a counterargument to it as well. Doing so allows students to perceive the world from a different point of view. Additionally, build service-learning opportunities into your instruction so that your students learn to experience the world outside of their realities and to feel empowered to serve others. Role plays are also an opportunity for students to build empathy. Just as important, we must model empathy by acknowledging our students’ perspectives before responding to them.
  • Use literature and other texts to build emotional intelligence. When analyzing a character or figure in texts, ask students how that individual might be feeling. Push students to elaborate on their thinking by asking why they believe a character is experiencing a certain emotion. Particularly, we might ask students what in the written description or imagery (a character’s facial expression, body language, physiology and vocal tone) confirms their understanding of what the individual is feeling. This approach allows for students to recognize emotions, understand the causes and consequences of emotions, and label emotions accurately.
  • Provide opportunities for students to create emotion-management strategies, and help them co-regulate when they need support. Help students identify strategies that shift them into an optimal emotional state for learning or for completing a given task. When students are derailed by a particular emotion, remind them of their individual strategies and empower them to manage their emotions. We can also help by co-regulating student emotions through our practice. For instance, if we want to calm our students down for a lesson, we could play music with a slow tempo, ask them to read silently or have the lights dimmed. We could also take them through a deep breathing exercise. Alternatively, if we want students to be excited about a lesson at hand, we could play fast-paced music and ask them to engage in movement exercises (in a carefully managed way).
  • Create opportunities for students to share their stories. When we create opportunities for students to share their narratives and to hear the narratives of others, we allow them to see and to experience the world in new ways. In our curricular choices, we can privilege narratives that offer “windows” and “mirrors” for students, which encourage our students to see the humanity in others.

Not being able to manage our emotions, express emotions for the given context or accurately recognize or label how we are feeling (or how others are feeling) can divide us and lead to often-avoidable conflict. These misunderstandings and misinterpretations of emotions strip us—and students—of opportunities to connect meaningfully and civilly with others. It is an imperative, then, to infuse emotionality into our instruction in the hopes of creating a more compassionate and just society, in hopes of shifting our divided states to the United States.

Last, and importantly, we must move beyond complacency and denial to action—real action. Giving money to just causes like many already have, protesting peacefully, creating survival guides, and dedicating time to self-care are all ways forward but so is engaging in civil discourse across differences with family members, friends, and beyond—especially now with Thanksgiving upon us. This simple action will allow people to begin to see the humanity in others, and it will also allow us to build bridges with others, even those with whom we might disagree. And, this bridge-building and civil discourse will serve as models for our young people on how to behave. We already know that we cannot rely on the President-elect to teach the next generation how to be citizens of the United States. It is up to us. This is an opportunity, a wake-up call, and I truly hope there is something better at the end of the tunnel. There has to be. Our young people deserve that much.

**A portion of this article was published in a post for Teaching Tolerance.

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