by Kena Hazelwood-Carter
In speaking to school psychology students and professionals about the day after the election, without exception they spoke of high levels of socio-emotional distress in their students. Some students were worried about their families being torn apart by mass deportations. Others were confused that someone they had seen bully and degrade others for months had won. Yet others were afraid that it was no longer safe to be open about the most fundamental aspects of themselves. A colleague of mine spoke of the Latina mother of one of her students coming in with bleached blonde hair. When she asked the mother about the drastic change she replied, “Don’t you know, Trump won. We have to blend in now”. Part of the universality of these anxietous responses is due to living and working in a liberal enclave; it does not make their pain any less real nor negate our charge to find ways to ameliorate it. In a world where truth is no longer a constant and promises change as quickly as it takes to type 140 characters, it is only natural that our students are feeling psychologically, emotionally, and physically vulnerable. Students need help navigating these tumultuous waters so that they can get back to the business of learning. One tool that has been shown to both improve students’ sense of wellbeing and academic outcomes is mindfulness (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016; Maynard, Solis, Miller, 2015).
Current high school students were born between 1998-2002. The only president they have had a personal emotional relationship to is President Obama. Over the course of his eight years in office there has been a relative predictability to his actions, and by and large they have resulted in increased safety, security, and inclusion for all. This was the social contract our students were born into. Their engagement in institutions (e.g. school, government) has been grounded in the idea that these institutions, operating within a flawed system, would take into account both their and their community’s needs. This belief has been shattered with the election of the Twitter Tyrant. Our students are now fighting to keep their balance in the midst of a Twitter storm of unprecedented impact.
President Trump has proven that he can successfully co-opt public opinion and via Twitter diplomacy reshape reality. As the chief agitator of the birther movement, 2011, he convinced millions that President Obama was Kenyan-born forcing him to share not only his short-form U.S. birth certificate but his long-form one as well. Trump did not publically concede his acceptance of this proof as sufficient until two months prior to the 2016 presidential election. More recently the smart phone warrior pressured Ford Motor Company into changing their plans from building a new plant in Mexico to instead investing in extant plants in the United States. This change will result in an increased manufacturing cost of nearly 40%. This increased cost will be subsidized by large tax incentives worth far more than their 1.4 Billion dollar investment thus, this not a victory for the American worker but rather for the Trump propaganda machine. Trump reverses his positions whenever it is politically or personally expedient, as shown by his pre-election change of heart vis-à-vis President Obama’s citizenship. How can our students be expected to blithely ignore the power of these missives when even the most powerful jump at the slightest chirp? Cyberbullying has been found to have similar negative impacts to traditional bullying, including on academic outcomes (Juvonen, Wang, & Espinoza, 2010). Though, as illustrated by our Cyberbully-in-Chief, cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying in that its prevalence and frequency increases with age (Smith, et al., 2008).
The challenge of Trumpian logic is that it often lacks both internal and external validity. Commonly accepted truth has no meaning in this alt-right reality. Any knowledge originating from inside the orange-tinted bubble, cannot be assimilated into existing schema nor can it be accommodated fully by new schema as by doing so would violate an individual’s understanding of what is true. When an individual’s level of knowledge is not sufficient to meet the challenges of the circumstance, disequilibrium is the result (Piaget, 1976). Piaget and Cook (1952) called this imbalance the motivating force behind the pursuit of knowledge and the foundation of learning. However, if the lesson learned has been one of fear this precludes positive subsequent responses (e.g. academic learning).
In addition to past environments, the environment that an individual is surrounded by at the present moment, can have a huge impact on an individual’s perception of the world (Alfred 1969). Higher emotional loads it can impact other areas and cause toxic levels of stress (Heim & Nemeroff, 2001; McEwen, 1998). Cognition is linked to emotion both mediate how we interact with the world (Nussbaum, 2001). It follows that when emotionally activated student’s cognitive capacities are also affected (McEwen, 1998). What is more, the motivating power of emotions influences cognition and adaptive functioning (Izard, Stark, Trentacosta, & Schultz, 2008) such that attentional focus can shift from academic success to survival. Emotions’ are a key contributor to students’ motivation, memory, and academic outcomes (Lewis & Haviland-Jones, 2000; Lewis, Haviland-Jones, & Barrett, 2008). Without prioritizing our students’ emotional needs, expecting them to pay attention to academic tasks is unrealistic.
One tweet at a time Trump is attacking students’ confidence in their ability to access their next meal, physical security and the safety of their friends and family. Maslow (1943) posited that individuals are motivated by a hierarchy of needs and that as each level of need is fulfilled we are then freed to pursue the next. The five levels of this theory from the bottom up are physiological needs (e.g. food, shelter), security (e.g. feeling safe), belongingness and love (e.g intimate relationships and friends), esteem (e.g. accomplishment and prestige), and self-actualization (e.g. achieving one’s full potential). Without the prior level’s needs being met one is not able to progress to the next. With the integrity of Maslow’s first three levels of need violated, students’ ability to focus on school (Arum, 2003)—which is affiliated with the highest levels of need, esteem and self-actualization—may be inhibited as the motivation to pursue these higher levels is absent.
There is a universal need to process stressful events with others and in doing so find a way to cope (Kliewer, Lepore, Oskin, & Johnson, 1998; Noy, 2004). Without a steady hand on the ship-of-state, fundamental beliefs regarding the predictability and dependability of human action are disrupted; when those heretofore safe assumptions are defied, psychological stress is often the consequence (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). Stress can aid learning when it is time to study for an exam. Pervasive high levels of stress however can hamper memory retrieval, and prevent the formation of new memories by causing a reversion from open and flexible thinking to ridged and fixed modes (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016). Without stress abatement strategies in place, the stress caused by dealing with a dystopian reality can prevent learning
Chemtob, Roitblat, Hamada, Carlson, and Twentyman’s (1988) hierarchical cognitive action theory, speculates that there is a hierarchical organizational structure which allows overlap of schema. Threat activation results in a domino effect wherein arousal triggers threat expectancy leading to the belief that there will be subsequent threats to self. Each new Tweet represents a new potential threat and validates a continued state of hypervigilance. Beck and Emery (1985) hypothesized that when preexisting schema associated with past traumas are activated, any data that is incongruent with these is ignored. For students, this suggests that even the discussion of the Twitter Tyrant’s activities could be triggering. In schools, one way that sense-making is supported is through presenting lessons on sensitive topics. Regrettably, any accompanying context designed to assuage fears or disprove the threatened actions may not be effective as the arousal caused by mentioning these tweets could preclude additional engagement. Students would be left in a state of unresolved disequilibrium. This disequilibrium would be compounded by the fact that regardless of whether or not there is accommodation or assimilation of these new data, the psychological impact their ability to regulate their emotions can be impaired after exposure to high levels of stress (Heim & Nemeroff, 2001; McEwen, 1998). Ultimately, this state of psychological distress undermines students’ ability to learn.
Mindfulness based stress reduction is effective (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004). Mindfulness interventions have been shown to improve functioning in areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation and so reduce the intensity of distress and aid in emotional recovery (Roemer, Williston, & Rollins, 2015). This progress has been linked to improved cognition, ability to stay on task and overall academic performance (Maynard, Solis, Miller, 2015). The purpose of mindfulness practice is to increase an individual’s ability to be fully aware of how they are feeling in the present moment without judgement (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Increased mindful awareness allows one to able to accurately ascertain their emotional state and whether good or bad, accept it—this is different from resignation—perceiving how this reality is impacting other aspects of self, such as their physiology and behavior allows for the individual to determine their response (Zoogman, Goldberg, Hoyt, & Miller, 2015; Felver, Doerner, Jones, Kaye, & Merrell, 2013).
Trump’s Twitter tantrums essentializes the need to be able to divorce response to input from action. Effortful control (i.e. “the efficiency of executive attention—including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors” Rothbart & Bates, 2006, p.129) has been shown to be closely linked to academic achievement (Valienta, Swanson, & Eisenberg, 2012). This ability to choose what you turn your attention toward is the aim of mindfulness and why it helps both academic and psychosocial outcomes. This ability to pay dispassionate attention supports the creation of new schema that can aid in the interaction with traumatic impetus, new or remembered, without them overwhelming all other responses (McCann & Pearlman,1990). When one’s capacity to balance psychological and social needs are restored psychosocial healing and stronger internal reserves are possible.
Zoogman, Goldberg, Hoyt, and Miller (2015) conducted an extensive meta-analytical review of mindfulness interventions and found that they do indeed work. In addition they reported that mindfulness interventions have been shown to be effective across a wide range of ages, school environments, and methods of engagement. Of particular note is the fact that interventions were found to be especially effective for students experiencing, learning difficulties, anxiety, and attentional difficulties among other psychopathologies. Classroom settings are the best way to deliver such interventions (Hutcherson, Seppla, & Gross, 2008). One barrier to the implementation of new initiatives in school settings is often time constraints; mindfulness enhancing protocols have been shown to be effective with as little as four days of exposure of 20 minutes each (Zeidan, 2010) and thus can be fit into packed schedules with relative ease. Trump’s tweets arrive at all hours with no way to predict them, nor their content. Having a tool that can be implemented with little to no prior planning and requires only a small commitment of time and other resources makes mindfulness the right tool to support our students in processing the vitriol broadcast by our puppet PEOTUS. When our students are supported in feeling safe they can commit themselves to the task of learning.
As actors in the field of education it is contingent upon us to equip our students with the necessary psychosocial tools needed to help them navigate their roiling emotions. Without being able to make sense of the myriad feelings they are sifting through it is nearly impossible for them to meaningfully engage in their education. No one if prescient and thus we cannot predict what the next four years will bring. If we accept the past as prologue it is fairly certain that the barrage of blustering braggadocio will continue. Through Trump’s thumbs flow potentially life altering pronouncements targeted at a government, corporation, class or individual without warning. In the United States of Trump our students’ psychological mettle will be put to the test. It is our duty to stand united with them and ensure that they are able to be mindful that not only are his hands small but so too is his vision of America.
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Kena Hazelwood-Carter is doctoral student in School Psychology at UC Berkeley where she researches how to create trauma-informed curricula to support diverse learners. She has worked in schools serving underrepresented and marginalized populations for over 15 years and loves finding new ways to make dense material accessible to all. She holds a B.A. in Political Studies from Bard College and an M.S from the City College of New York in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She can be reached at email@example.com