How to help children cope with traumatic events
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Partnerships and Family Involvement provides the following tips for parents, educators, and other concerned adults who are speaking with children and students about coping in light of the terrorist attacks. For more information, contact the Office of Educational Partnerships and Family Involvement at 202-401-0960.
Suggestions for Educators Meeting the Needs of Students
In the aftermath of the horrific attacks that took place in 2001, everyone involved in education faces a great challenge: helping our children to feel safe and secure.
There are children whose lives have been directly affected by the terrorist attacks and will never be the same. Most of our children have seen terrifying images of destruction on television and the Internet. They are reading newspapers and they have heard stories on the radio about the huge loss of life.
If you are an educator, whether your school is a public, private, parochial, charter or home school, you must offer your students your undivided attention and unequivocal support.
If you are a principal, here are some things to consider doing at your school:
Evaluate the counseling resources you have on campus and consider what services and assistance may be available in your community. If you need help with counseling your students, faith-based and community organizations can help.
Meet with the faculty of your school as a group and individually. Many of your teachers and staff are feeling stress and anxiety, and your leadership can help to comfort them and build a strong sense of camaraderie among the staff that will assist them in meeting the needs of their students.
When you meet with teachers, encourage them to listen to the questions and concerns of their students, and to answer their questions honestly with age-appropriate facts. Remind them that we can overwhelm young children with too much information.
Share suggestions with your faculty about how to discuss the terrorist attacks with the students in their classrooms, and how to look for signs of distress or special needs among their students so they know where to direct extra help.
Teachers may want to consider the following suggestions:
Listen to your students and watch their behavior. Sometimes the quietest child may be the most frightened. Some children may daydream, or have trouble concentrating on their schoolwork. Some may act out. And yet some more may be just fine.
Take the time to reassure your students that their homes and schools are safe places. Show them that their school is functioning normally, and tell them that their government is working and that it will continue to protect them.
Help students discuss the known facts and to separate fact from rumor. Avoid speculating, exaggerating graphic details, or stereotyping groups of people.
Maintain structure and stability through the daily schedule and engage in classroom activities that do not focus on the recent attacks. Children are comforted by their normal routine, and “back-to-normal” activities will help them.
Remember that the images on television are frightening, even to adults. Reduce or eliminate the presence of television in the classroom.
Remind your students about the value of living in a country that respects individual liberty and the rule of law. Talk about the principles that led to the independence of our country, and why they are still important today.
Engage in patriotic activities to give your students comfort. Say the Pledge of Allegiance, sing patriotic songs, or read books about courage.
Encourage your students to participate in constructive activities relative to the tragedy. They can write notes to those in mourning or write about acts of courage or bravery. Give them the opportunity to come up with ideas about how they can help those in need.
Teachers can also take care of themselves and their colleagues. Though some will show it more than others, teachers are feeling the effects of the terrorist attacks just as their students are.
Suggestions for Adults
First and most important, adults need to focus on the children in their lives in the aftermath of the horrific events that have taken place. They can do a great deal to help our children understand that while our country has suffered despicable acts of terror, we are a strong people who have come together to make certain that we prevail in the struggle for freedom.
In addition to the children whose lives have been directly impacted by the terrorist attacks, most children have seen terrifying images of destruction on television and the Internet. They are reading newspapers and they have heard stories on the radio that speak of grave losses of life. They will also take emotional cues from the adults in their lives who have been watching these events closely.
As adults turn to address the needs of the children in their life in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the following are some points to keep in mind:
Adults need to consider the impact of their reactions upon their children. By creating a calm and relaxed environment in their homes through their own demeanor they can help their children to feel safe. That may not be possible for all families, particularly those that have been directly impacted. If they have been visibly anxious or upset, adults need to take the time to explain to the children in their lives what they are feeling and why.
Taking the time to listen and talk to your child is very important. Many children will have seen images on television that will prompt questions. They will continue to hear about these events in the coming days as well and will be reminded by images through media and in their everyday lives, so it is important to keep those lines of communication open.
In talking to children, adults can and should try to reinforce that their children are safe, and explain that the events that took place occurred in buildings that are symbols to the outside world or that are part of our national defense system. Their homes and schools are safe.
Helping children to separate fact from fiction is also important. Adults should try to discuss known facts with children, and to avoid speculation, exaggeration and stereotyping groups of people.
Adults can also talk with children about the senselessness of violence, hate and terrorism. They can explain that we were attacked because of our commitment to protecting the freedom, opportunity and safety of people throughout the world. They can point out the bravery and goodness of those who have already done so much to help the victims, and reinforce that our country will prevail.
Although you hear it suggested often, if you are home with a child, you should take extra efforts to limit their television, radio and Internet activity in order to avoid excessive exposure to imagery of the damage and destruction. Consider activities that you can do with your child instead.
Adults also need to make it a priority to watch the children in their lives, and understand their behavior. Children may manifest some behavioral and emotional changes, including misbehavior. These are signs to parents that reassurance and care is needed.
If a family has strong faith, this is a time to talk about that faith with children and to help them relate what has taken place to those lessons and beliefs. It is also a time to pray for all of those families who have been touched by the destruction and loss of life.
Children and adolescents may also be struggling to understand the immorality of the terrorist attacks. This is an opportunity for adults to help children understand the presence of good and evil in the world and discuss children’s concerns about a moral and safe future.
Children will have a range of reactions and will display a variety of emotions. Adults need to be tolerant of that behavior and need to explain to children that it is okay to be upset or disturbed.
If your child wants to be unusually close to you right now, for example not wanting to be separated from you, it is okay to make changes to your normal routine and contact, but at the very beginning you should create a clear understanding that this is unusual and negotiate a quick return to your normal pattern.
Adults need to consider how the events may have had some relevance to their daily activities. For example, if you travel often by plane or work in a tall building, you may find that your child does not want to be separated from you. It is important to take the time to talk about and help your children to feel secure about separations and understand your activities and routine.
It may take some time for children to show signs of stress or anxiety, so the adults in their lives need to stay especially attuned for changes in behavior. Children within a single family may display very different reactions from one another. Adolescents in particular may display reckless behavior in the aftermath of these events.
Finally, it may help to engage your children in activities where they can offer constructive assistance to the victims of the violence. With young children, you may want to send drawings and cards. If your child is a teenager, he or she may want to donate blood or volunteer with a community organization that is offering help to the victims of the terrorist attacks.
If you think you need professional assistance in meeting the needs of a child in your life, there are resources available to you. There are excellent state and county mental health organizations around the country. Schools, community based organizations and religious institutions that are located in your community can help with guidance and counseling or direct you to the right services.
Our allies around the world are standing by our side in the struggle this country faces between good and evil. With the help of caring adults, our children can understand that good will prevail, and our adults should know that their government stands by their side to help them with their needs.