Helping Third-Graders Cope With Post-Election Fears

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Teachers at Cali Calmecac Language Academy are focusing on community building after the election. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Third-graders at Cali Calmécac Language Academy in Windsor are in the middle of presenting book reports to each other when one little boy bursts into tears. Their teacher, Rosa Villalpando, pulls him aside to check in. Sobbing, he tells her that, as a result of the presidential election, he’s afraid he’ll have to move to Mexico. Some kids on his street won’t play with him anymore, he says.

"They won’t let me because they’re like, 'You’re a different color from us. Since Trump’s president, we can’t play with you,' " he explains between sobs. "And my friend is moving to Canada, and other friends are going to Mexico. I want us to stay here and play with them. But I don’t have much time because I might move to Mexico."

Villalpando leans in closer. "Know that I’m here and you can talk to me, OK?" she says. "Let’s breathe together, OK? You ready?" The two take long, deep breaths together, and the boy slowly calms down.

Some children at this Spanish-English dual immersion school in Sonoma County have been anxious since the primary election, crying in class or complaining of stomach aches. Most students here are Latino, and even kids whose families have been here for generations, and whose parents are U.S. citizens, worry their families or friends could be separated under Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies.

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"The night of the election, that was the hardest part, to know I would have to come in and face the children on their worst nightmare," Villalpando says. "I mean the way that they’ve been presenting their anxiety and fear."

Teachers all over California are grappling with this: how to create a safe space for students to express their fears, while also remaining nonpartisan and respectful of all political views. Most people in Sonoma County voted for Hillary Clinton, but a little more than a fifth voted for Trump.

Community members flooded the school with messages of support after anti-immigrant graffitti was sprayed on the walls.
Community members flooded the school with messages of support after anti-immigrant graffitti was sprayed on the walls. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Villalpando asks her students to get out their journals and read what they wrote the day after the election.

"It's always a good thing to talk about how we're feeling," she reminds the class, "and then how do we turn those feelings into something positive? Or, if you are happy, then to rejoice in it, whatever it is."

A few students wrote in their journals that their parents voted for Trump or that Clinton was a mean person. But most share that they feel scared, mad or sad about the new president-elect.

"Donald Trump may take my family away," a girl named Saraí reads from her journal. "I don't want my family away from me because I love them so much."

For a lot of students here, the president-elect's immigration rhetoric feels personal. Many identify as Mexican, even when they, and often their parents, are U.S. citizens. So when Trump said he would build a wall and deport Mexican immigrants, some kids thought he meant them or their families, even when many of their families could not be deported.

"I feel ashamed that America voted for Donald Trump," says 8-year-old Cruz. "I feel like a lot of people are prejudiced because they voted for him. Donald Trump is prejudiced. And I don’t think it was really fair that he got to win."

Overcome with emotion, Cruz begins to shake with deep sobbing breaths. A classmate sits down next to him to breathe with him.

One third grader expressed his feelings after the election this way.
One third grader expressed his feelings after the election this way. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

"I can relate to the children’s fears, and I think maybe that’s why I’m sensitive to what they’re feeling," Villalpando says. "I grew up in the United States, I came here when I was 4½"

She points to a framed photograph on a bookshelf in her classroom. In it, she's sitting with five brothers and sisters, next to their mom.

"I lived with fear because we were undocumented, and I did not become documented until I was 14," Villalpando says. "We had a fear of la migra. But now this fear seems different to me, because not only is it governmental, but it could be anybody around you that may not agree with you. So it feels so much more personal."

It feels more personal in part because a couple of weeks before the election, graffiti was splattered over the walls of the school with the words “Build the Wall Higher” and “Trump 2016.”  Some kids were so upset they didn’t want to come to school the next day.

Still, the graffiti gave Villalpando a powerful lesson to teach her students. Two days later, community members lined the sidewalk outside the school, welcoming the kids with posters that said things like, “There are no walls in Windsor.”

"So I took that upon myself to ask them, what kind of things do we do for others?" Villalpando says. "And they came up with lists: Open the door for others, write thank-you cards, pick flowers for someone we love, just smile ... so we turned it around and we did something positive with it."

Rosa Villalpando keeps a childhood picture in her classroom.
Rosa Villalpando keeps a childhood picture in her classroom. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Those lessons about community and kindness are coming in handy after the election. Villalpando comes back to the list on the wall again and again, to remind her students that even if we don't agree, we are a community that supports each other. She wants them to know that they are part of this country. She's proud of a student who wrote in his journal, "We have a new president, but I know if it is Trump, we could work together, 'cause all of us are the same. And we know that we could 'cause all of us are human."

"It’s such a great time to be a teacher," Villalpando says. "It is our place to show them love and show them acceptance, of course, every day, but right now when they need it the most, that security. Just the open forum. Some people may think it's maybe doing too much, but I think it’s just important. We can’t pretend it’s not happening."

Some parents say Villalpando's approach seems to be working.

"The children’s stress has gone down a lot," mom Patricia Figueroa says. "It’s not like when it first happened when they would come home really worried. So I think the teachers are doing a really good job."

Even so, she says, her daughter still comes home and asks her, "Mommy, are you going to have to go to Mexico?"