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New York City
September 2002

Preparing Students for 9/11
By Drs. Jonathan Cohen & Steven Marans

As the one-year anniversary of September 11th approaches, many children and adults are still experiencing significant reactions to the tragedy. During the past year, frequent reminders of the possibility of further attacks on our country have contributed to an individual’s sense of danger and emotional distress. With increasing attention given to the anniversary itself, students could benefit from additional assistance and support of their teachers, parents and communities. In response to this immediate need, the New York City Board of Education asked the Center for Social and Emotional Education and the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence to develop guidelines to help teachers and schools prepare for the one-year anniversary.

First, it is important to understand that symptoms and reactions of distress may vary from child to child. Children, as with adults, may experience a recurrence of some of the feelings associated with a loss or tragedy. Since the actual date of September 11th holds strong symbolism, this may cause a strong anniversary reaction in many individuals. Other factors such as commemorative events and media attention may also increase these reactions. However, not all children will appear to be impacted. Some may not have been directly affected by the events or may not be experiencing anniversary reactions. Although many children appear to be back to normal, they still may be feeling sad, scared, anxious or angry. They may also have symptoms of difficulties that neither they nor the adults around them connect to their experiences of the anniversary.

During such times of stress, memorialization can further the process of healing and social-emotional learning for students. By planning and participating in a memorial event, students can personally exercise some control over how they will remember the tragedy. A memorial event not only should remember the losses associated with September 11th, but also should highlight community unity and foster a sense of hope for the future. But in order for the memorial events to have true significance, children must be actively involved in the planning process and the events should be relevant to their interests and developmental needs. School staff should engage students in a discussion of what they think would be a meaningful way to acknowledge the anniversary. The opportunity to plan activities as a group allows children to explore how they are feeling and to exchange suggestions about what might make them feel better. Adults should avoid telling children what they should feel or how they should express their feelings; they must try to listen and respect children’s different needs and wishes.

Before the initiation of planning process, teachers should notify families. Many children will be more comfortable beginning the discussions of their feelings related to the tragedy with their own families. This also provides an opportunity for parents to bring their concerns or relevant family experiences, such as personal losses, to the attention of the school. Children who have had personal losses should be informed of what will be discussed within class and reassured that no one will disclose their personal experiences. Teachers and parents should establish a way for these children to communicate with them privately and follow-up with them as the planning progresses.

Given the broad impact of September 11th, teachers should attempt to coordinate memorial planning and activities within their schools and communities. However, too much attention to the anniversary can also cause problems. Parents should be advised to limit the amount of time their children view television coverage­especially graphic material of the events. Parents and teachers should work together to ensure that children are not overwhelmed by the material related to the anniversary.

These are some initial points to consider in planning for the anniversary of September 11. The comprehensive set of guidelines and additional information is available through the web sites for the Center for Social and Emotional Education (www.csee.net) and the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence (www.nccev.org).#

Dr. Jonathan Cohen is the President of Center for Social and Emotional Education and Adjunct Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Steven Marans is the Director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine.


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