Donald Trump, Negative Campaigns, and Social Skills: Modeling Intolerance for our Students?

Why the Education Community Needs to Seize this Teachable Moment

The campaign season that will elect our next President has clearly begun, and we have been hurled- - like it or not- - into a teachable moment. The teachable moment involves the issue of how candidates communicate their differences and disagreements. . . with, for example, national policies and practices, as well as with the proposals and beliefs of their fellow opponents.

While we are all too accustomed to negative campaigns, “gotcha” questions, and personal attacks veiled as “character” appraisals, we need to stop and think about how this all looks to our children and adolescents. More specifically, as we are trying to teach students how to get along with each other so that our schools and classrooms are safe, positive, and productive, what is the message when they see our Presidential candidates acting in boorish, inappropriate, if not intolerable ways?

And so, let’s talk about Donald Trump. And, understand, this is NOT a political discussion or a commentary on his recommended policies, programs, and plans. It is about his process. I could just as easily be discussing Jerry Springer or any number of current TV or internet shows; some of our badly-behaving athletes, musicians, or other pop-culture figures; or any number of other “role models” that our students either look up to or are exposed to.

Bottom line: The “Donald” has crossed the line. Trump has crossed the line from (a) highlighting differences in opinion and preference, to (b) engaging in negative campaigning and personal attacks, to (c) making statements that reflect (at the very least) an intolerance of gender and race - - that could easily generalize to an intolerance of age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, or other differences.

And he has done this while chiding others who (he claims) are too “politically correct.” He has done this through generalization, exaggeration, and largely without documentation. And even this morning, he has defended himself, externalized his actions, and not taken responsibility for his words and behavior.

But the explicit problem, once again, is a concern that he is modeling and reinforcing behavior and actions that are inappropriate, and that contradict everything we are trying to teach our students to help them learn and use needed interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills in school (as well as in their homes and communities).

The implicit problem is that our students may be interpreting Trump’s current political standing in the polls and his apparent political popularity as a message that his behavior and positions are acceptable and, in fact, valued by many adults in the general public.

How to Embrace this Teachable Moment

In contrast with Jerry Springer and some reality TV/internet shows, or with athletes or actors who have committed crimes, the Presidential campaign is relevant to our schools and students, and should be integrated into the classroom and relevant parts of our curricula.

The recommendation here, however, is to go beyond discussing the content-specific issues (like the three branches of government, economic growth, international policy, issues like immigration) to include process-specific issues.

These process-specific issues include (a) how candidates interact with each other, the media, and the public; (b) the positive versus negative tone of their statements, responses, and even campaign ads; and (c) how they communicate a respect for individual, demographic, class, and cultural differences.

These process-specific issues can then be discussed relative to how students and staff in the school should interact with each other - - individually, in small groups (like lab, project-based, or cooperative groups), and in large groups (as in the classrooms or the common areas of the school). This discussion could emphasize how students and staff should model certain candidates’ approaches, while dismissing other candidates’ behavior.

And, these discussions should include skill instruction and practice to help students learn how to:

  • * Communicate Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously
  • * Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, and Disagree
  • * Collaborate, Cooperate, and Accept Others’ Input and Opinions
  • * Respect Others, Be a Team Player, and Take on Different Group Roles
  • * Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or Consequences
  • * Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong
  • * Show Confidence, Deal with Peer Pressure, and Stand up for Self/Others
  • * Control and Express Emotions, and Respond to Others’ Emotions

This skill instruction should involve the following components:

  • Teaching the specific skills and their implementation steps
  • Making sure that students understand and have “bought into” the importance of using and demonstrating the skill
  • Behaviorally modeling how to demonstrate the appropriate behavioral steps (NOTE: while you can talk about inappropriate behavior and choices, you never demonstrate them)
  • Having students behaviorally practice and role-play the skills, while giving them either positive or corrective feedback
  • Having the students practice under role-played “conditions of emotionality” so that they are able to handle such emotional conditions when they actually occur
  • Giving the students ongoing opportunities to remember, practice, and apply the skills during actual instructional activities in the classroom


While I hate to suggest this, what would you do if Donald Trump were a student in your classroom? While you could send him to the Principal’s Office, suspend him, or put him into an Alternative School Program, I doubt that this would change his behavior.

As a psychologist, here is what I would begin to think about:

  • If Donald’s behavior is simply impulsive or if he lacks self-management skills, we would need to teach him these skills. While this may need to start on a one-on-one basis, it eventually would need to transfer into the different settings and situations across the school.
  • If Donald’s behavior is motivated, let’s say, for attention, we would need to ignore his inappropriate behavior, reinforce his appropriate behavior (when it occurred), and hold him accountable for the inappropriate behavior if it escalated or became too extreme.
  • If Donald’s behavior is occurring because some within his peer group are reinforcing his inappropriate behavior, we would have to include them in the intervention process.
  • If Donald’s behavior is occurring because no one is holding him accountable, then consistent accountability (e.g., by all staff and administration) would need to incorporated in the intervention.
  • Finally, if Donald’s inappropriate behavior has been strengthened due to inconsistent instruction, incentives or consequences, or accountability - - across people, places, times, or circumstances, we would need to address this “history of inconsistency” by eliminating the inconsistency immediately, determining the best intervention, and implementing that intervention past the history of inconsistency.

Obviously, if I were Donald Trump’s psychologist, I am sure that he would fire me pretty quickly. I am also sure that we are not going to change his behavior any time soon.

But, we cannot afford to ignore his inappropriate behavior when it may be inadvertently teaching and reinforcing our students to behave similarly. And we cannot allow our students to believe that his inappropriate behavior is correct, condoned, or even celebrated.

Instead, we must seize and embrace this teachable moment on behalf of our students. It is, quite simply, our educational responsibility.

Believe it or not (for some of you), I shared the beginning of the new school year this past week with one of the districts that I work with in Kentucky. If you are still on vacation, I hope that these thoughts will help your planning for the upcoming school year. If you are already back at school, please consider these thoughts and the importance of preparing our students not just academically - - but socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

I appreciate everything that you do as positive role models for our students. As always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas related to this and previous discussions, please do not hesitate to contact me.