The Trump Effect

The Trump Effect: How children mirror the behavior of politicians

By Dr. Jennifer Garvin Sanchez


A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center reports significant changes in classrooms since the 2016 presidential campaign began.


While visiting family last Christmas, my brother-in-law relayed the story of a child he observed in NOVA where he works at a non-profit.  An Asian child taunted a Latino child: “If Trump gets elected, you will get deported!”  An adult laughed and said, “If Trump gets elected, you’ll get deported, too!”  This may be funny to adults, but to a child who lives with the fear of night raids for the undocumented under the Obama administration, this idea can be terrifying and the banter of children malicious.







The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published The Trump Effect, a report in which which they elicited responses from teachers in an informal online survey conducted from March 23 to April 2, 2016.  Almost 2000 teachers responded to open ended questions, including whether or not they agreed with the following statements:

  • There has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
  • There has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
  • I have heard an increase in uncivil political discourse at my school since the 2016 presidential campaign began.
  • My students have expressed concern about what might happen to them or their families after the election.


The “report found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.”  The report went on, “other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”


This past semester, in my college class, an older Muslim student reported that her high school age students are depressed and terrified.  I am not surprised because before the campaign I have had Muslim students who have told stories of harassment and bullying growing up in Virginia, so I can only imagine how it is now that this kind of behavior has been “sanctioned” by political leaders.


The dilemma teachers face is how to teach students about the political process when politicians are exhibiting bullying behavior and rhetoric that would get a student expelled from school.  A teacher in Arlington, Virginia, said in the survey, “I try to not bring it up since it is so stressful for my students.” Every fourth year teachers across the country have used the national election as a teaching tool to explain the political process to students.  Now, some teachers have foregone this lesson plan altogether.  Others have taken an opposite tack. A teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “I am at a point where I’m going to take a stand even if it costs me my position.” Some teachers are abandoning any pretense of neutrality, telling students that it is not OK to talk about others as some politicians have.


Here are the highlights of the survey:

  • 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.
  • More than 40 percent are hesitant to teach about the election.


The survey itself did not mention candidates by name, but of 5,000 comments, more than 1000 mentioned Donald Trump by name and less than 200 mentioned the other candidates by name. Of course, Trump has spoken of deporting millions of Latino immigrants, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, banning Muslim immigrants and even killing the families of Islamist terrorists. He has also called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers, made fun of a disabled reporter and made many sexist comments to female reporters and routinely calls other candidates name, like “crooked Hillary.”


At the Richmond Peace Education Center, we teach children how to listen to each other, how to respect each other’s opinions and how to value ethnic and religious diversity.  When politicians behave in ways that children should not, and are not allowed to, they either become confused, or disillusioned with adults and the political process. The only way to overcome this is to have open and honest conversations with children not only about the important issues facing our country, such as racism, religious intolerance, immigration, and terrorism, but also modeling behavior both in the classroom and at home about how to have civil political discourse without name calling and bigoted rhetoric.


Depending on the age of the child, they may lack the context to understand the complexities of the issues, but children do understand compassion and empathy for those suffering from injustices.  For me, this is always the starting point for any discussion of these issues.  And children are also incredibly aware of what the adults in their lives believe and how they model how we should treat others.


Dr. Jennifer Garvin Sanchez is a board member of the Richmond Peace Education Center and Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at VCU.