By Eric Kalenze

Over the course of 2016’s presidential election, political conversation reached levels of volume and vitriol we’d not been accustomed to seeing. Worse, though we’ve reached President-elect Donald J. Trump’s inauguration day, the dust kicked up by the election battles seems to be far from settled: horrifically, close to a thousand cases of hateful harassment or intimidation were reported across the U.S. within days of the November 8 election, and the political conflicts and controversies have only increased in the intervening months.

In the midst of it all, one can’t help sensing that the many of the lines dividing Americans are getting carved deeper and wider.

As we adults make our way through this division—and, hopefully, do our absolute best to repair it—it is especially important to remember its effect on our society’s youngest members. An April 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed its more than 2,000 teachers on its email list (not a random sample, which the SPLC acknowledges) to get a better idea of how the current political climate might be affecting U.S. children. Some sobering highlights of their ultimate report include the following:

  • More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants and Muslims—have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.

  • More than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse.

  • More than one-third have observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.

Figures like these are of great concern to us at Search Institute, as we are well-familiar with how crucial students’ senses of belonging are toward developing confidence, attention, and motivation in school and beyond. We’re also aware, however,  educators may feel powerless in properly addressing these kinds of student concerns in their classes. (In the SPLC report noted above, in fact, over 40 percent of teachers surveyed said they felt hesitant to teach about the election.)

If you choose to deliberately take on such student concerns in your classroom—to deliberately assure all students of their importance and of your commitment to their positive growth despite messages they may be hearing in the larger culture, that is—it may help to use REACH’s Developmental Relationships Framework as a set of focusing “lenses”.

The five Developmental Relationships elements (Express Care, Challenge Growth, Provide Support, Share Power, Expand Possibilities) describe multiple ways that young people perceive and experience their relationships and they provide a diversity of relationship-strengthening approaches to choose from.

This diversity is pretty handy when you think about it, as it can sometimes be hard to tell—especially with such delicate and anxiety-causing matters—which approach will provide the best “key” from student to student. (Plus, it may be more effective and personalized than simply throwing the doors open on free-form class discussions about the election.)

To illustrate, see this sample involvement arc:

  • In your 8th grade math class, you have observed a student who has clearly struggled with concerns and fears since the election. The day following the election, she reacted violently to students’ taunts at lunch, an incident for which all involved students were given three-day suspensions. Since that time, she has become very withdrawn in class and does not seem to be rebounding.

  • Knowing of her struggles and seeing them each day, you make it a point to demonstrate your care for her (Developmental Relationships Element 1, Express Care: “Show me that I matter to you”) by checking in each day about non-school related matters. Despite your efforts, however, the student’s engagement shows very little change over a couple weeks. She still barely makes eye contact when you visit with her individually, and her in-class participation/engagement is still at a concerning low.

  • In talking with your grade-level colleagues you learn that a number of them are struggling similarly with individual students in their classes, and that additional efforts to reach the students are, like yours, not producing much. Deciding that Expressing Care may not be the best “key” in this case, you and two colleagues decide to more directly involve the students in their turnaround process (Developmental Relationships Element 4, Share Power: “Treat me with respect and give me a say”). You start by calling a group meeting with a select group of the observed-struggling students, facilitated by the three teacher-teamers, with the goal being to learn, in a safe, multiple-teacher-supported environment, what the students need to feel safe and to return to productive levels of engagement.

  • Productive as this meeting is toward outlining some next steps (both in terms of things teachers can do to help and what parts students will be held responsible for), it provides the additional and unforeseen benefit of bringing similarly struggling students together. You and your colleagues suggest to the student group that they could continue meeting to share experiences and to support one another, and your one assigned task is visiting your principal to volunteer your supervision and to arrange times, meeting spaces, and student passes. Though you aren’t directly supporting your student or your colleagues’, you’re having what we at Search have found to be a profound relationship-strengthening impact by introducing all involved students to people and opportunities that can help them grow (Developmental Relationships Element 5, Expand Possibilities: “Connect me with people and places that broaden my world”).

Hypothetical as this arc might be, it demonstrates how support can be provided to students in multiple ways, all strategically and deliberately guided by REACH’s Developmental Relationships Framework.  The main point is that we have multiple ways to express to kids that they belong–the Developmental Relationships Framework can be a useful guide toward finding just the right ways for just the right kids.

And at this divided point in American history, it’s crucial that we give this our best shot.

Please be in touch if you have questions or other feedback. Leave them in the comment space below or email me at

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