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Talking to Kids About the Dysfunctional Presidential Debate

What the debate tells us about the need for social-emotional learning.

“I think that was worse than our seventh-grade mock debate.” That’s what our 14-year-old said after Tuesday night’s presidential debate, which had been assigned by the high school politics teacher to watch and analyze. I murmured agreement as I wasn’t quite sure what else to say at the moment — but woke up the next morning wondering how that ninth-grade teacher was going to handle a class discussion about the debate. Clearly, there was more to talk about beyond the specific campaign issues.

News headlines seem to suggest consensus about how bad the debate was, some deeming it the worst in presidential history and an embarrassment to society. The theme of many stories covering the event can be summed up in a single word: dysfunction. Dysfunctional debates are characterized by not listening, jumping in and cutting others off, grandstanding, boasting, using sarcastic or biting tones, and not acknowledging others.

In contrast, healthy debates are characterized by a focus on the issue over the person, seeking other points of view, questioning over lecturing, clearing up points of confusion, and following the set ground rules or norms. Now it was becoming clear to me why I had that nagging feeling about how to proceed in talking about the debate with our kids. Putting the political issues aside, the debate brought to light critical lessons about civility — a key piece to social and emotional well-being.

Civility is about courtesy in our speech and behavior. The purpose of civics education is to teach students about how democratic processes work and how to productively take part in them. According to a 2018 report by the Brookings Institute, civics education outlines a set of practices intended to support students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to engage in American democracy. Recommended classroom practices include studying such topics as government and current events, but also simulating democratic processes as well as social-emotional learning.

Yes, social and emotional learning is tied to civics. Social-emotional learning is the process through which individuals “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,” per the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This learning is pretty important throughout life – it’s tied not only to students’ success in school, but also lifetime outcomes such as graduation rates, emotional distress, and economic mobility.

Civics education that includes debate provides a powerful opportunity to learn about, practice, and receive feedback on social and emotional skills. The challenge is to ensure healthy debate skills – the opposite of what our kids watched this week.

To move forward with our kids, we first need to address the mess that happened this week. We must talk about what happened during this debate of dysfunction, using it as a prime non-example (what not to do) of healthy debate. We also need to push for more civics education in school, teaching our kids the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that they will need to be healthy debaters as adults. Actively embedding social and emotional learning within existing structures for teaching debate is important for all students.

Families (as well as teachers) might consider a couple of possible approaches:

  • Find examples of prior debates, and engage your kids in comparing and contrasting the behaviors in healthy versus dysfunctional debate.
  • Construct a “do-over” for the dysfunctional debate: Take a piece of the debate and rewrite it in a way to show elements of what would exemplify a healthy debate.
  • Role-play short mock debates using nonpolarizing “issues” (for example, should we eat ice cream for breakfast?). Act out dysfunctional as well as healthy arguments and responses, then stop to process how it felt to be part of each experience. These “debating” activities help students develop self-expression, perspective-taking, and critical listening. (For older students, TED has even curated a list of talks that support a healthy debate, many of which are directly connected to topics in social and emotional learning.)
  • When a controversial, offensive, or non-inclusive statement is made — whether during the presidential debate, or at home or in the classroom — use a “mark the moment” strategy to pause and paraphrase.

Each of these activities provides us with a teaching opportunity to take a messy debate and recreate it in ways that embed critical social and emotional learning lessons for kids.

For me, this debate was not as much about the campaign issues as it was about behaviors that do not support the positive social and emotional learning that carries us forward into successful adult life at home, work, and social contexts. We cannot let this debate of dysfunction be the model for the next generation.

More from Sandra M. Chafouleas, Ph.D.
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