“Protecting our kids and giving them a voice” Guidelines for NYC classrooms

Like December 7, June 6 and November 22, September 11 won't be allowed to come and go unnoticed anymore. It won't be indicated with bold numbers on commercial calendars, but its identity as something infamous and life changing is nevertheless assured. It's impossible to tell what history has in store for it, but at the moment, with its first anniversary approaching, the idea of understanding it as both history and a viable threat, without being re-traumatized, is something Americans of all ages — especially children — have to face.

There have been numerous and frequent reminders during the course of the last year of the possibility of further attacks on the U.S. and U.S. interests abroad, which have alarmed scores of American adults — and certainly American children. With media attention again beginning to focus on the ugly specifics of 9/11, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, co-founder and director of the Center for Social and Emotional Education (CSEE) in Manhattan, has spent six summer weeks in collaboration with Yale University's National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, developing a series of guidelines for educators and parents to help children prepare for the one-year anniversary. Although created for the then-New York City Board of Education, the guidelines will nonetheless be made use of in the fall.

"We need to take cues from the children," Dr. Cohen says of the beginnings of the healing process. "Reactions will vary tremendously from child to child. Although not all kids will appear to be affected by September 11, it's obvious that children who are directly impacted or those that have suffered any kind of history of loss will be most vulnerable. So we have to take their personality and their personal histories into account, but we have to first listen to their concerns. When we talk with kids, they feel a sense of control, of being heard — something that feels right to them."

A national organization, CSEE was founded in 1996 at Teachers College, Columbia University, where Dr. Cohen is an Adjunct Associate Professor in Psychology and Education. A child and adult clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Cohen is no stranger to the schools; he has worked with them for over a quarter century in a variety of positions, including teacher and diagnostician, and has consulted with parents, public, parochial and independent schools, along with the State Department of Education and other government agencies. He has also authored over 25 papers on various subjects in the field.

Dr. Cohen points out that, in order to help children, adults — parents and educators alike — need to know their own feelings about September 11. "9/11 was inherently anxiety-provoking for everyone," he says, "and if parents and educators don't support each other, it'll be hard for them to support kids. If we don't step back and think about how we feel about all this, we can't help our kids with it."

As Dr. Cohen sees it, one of the key factors in the process, especially as the first anniversary approaches, is limiting young people's access to replay coverage of the disaster. "Thousands of kids were traumatized last fall by the TV images," he states. "Few people realized how overwhelming that was for both children and adults. Trauma refers to the experience of being overwhelmed, and when people saw people jump from buildings or when they saw the buildings coming down, their sense of safety in America was lost. A lot of kids were exposed to this footage and it made things more difficult for them. We need to protect them from further trauma and give them a voice." Dr. Cohen recommends that people "talk and think" about 9/11 in order to create "the kind of memorialization that feels right."

The lesson plan designed for K-5 students, for example, is designed to help enhance self-awareness and awareness of others through such activities as drawing pictures (of 9/11 as they felt about it as it happened, and how they feel about it one year later); sharing their work with their classmates; and comparing and contrasting their own images and feelings with those of their peers. Related questions center on issues of what has changed in the students' lives as the result of 9/11, what they hope to have happen in the future, and what they, as a class, can do to support one another emotionally. (The guidelines, in their entirety, can be accessed by visiting www.csee.net).

Although Dr. Cohen admits that memorialization can be valuable in whatever style it takes, he suggests not forcing the process on children — or adults. School administrators were to meet in late August with teachers, parents and students to determine what kind of memorialization, if any, individual schools will engage in. "Some schools may decide to do very little, and that might be right for them," Dr. Cohen observes. "There are a range of activities schools can adopt — some schools make quilts. There's no really right or wrong way to go about it. But if you have previously-traumatized kids in class, they're vulnerable and you have to be attuned to them. Children, and teachers too, shouldn't be forced to attend a memorialization event." As for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to close down the schools and city agencies as a memorial to 9/11, Cohen calls it "a bad idea. People need to be with people, and talk."

“9/11 as History” Classroom help from the experts


Few nations, if any, are as well equipped as the United States to handle the psychological and emotional repercussions caused by a disaster of the scope and intensity of September 11. American response excelled, both in its immediate practicalities of rescue and recovery, and — just as immediately — psychologically. With the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America looming, the Families and Work Institute has partnered with Bank One to create an educational resource to help schoolchildren cope with the continued emotional fallout from the tragedy.

9/11 As History, as the program is called, supplies 16 lesson plans for use by students from Pre-K straight on through 12th grade. The curricula was developed by a national panel, including educational experts hailing from such organizations as the American Association of School Administrators and the American School Counselor Association. Among the individual contributors are Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., recognized for her work in establishing a curriculum for students, teachers and families after the Oklahoma City bombing; and Maureen Underwood, M.S.W., a grief counselor who has been working with children and families directly affected by the September 11 attacks. Five nationally chosen classroom teachers also contributed their ideas. The National Association of School Psychologists posted a list of “Dos and Don’ts” for schools concerning the marking of the anniversary. The downloadable lesson plans, together with tips for parents for educators, are available free of charge on www.familiesandwork.org.

Project director Lois Backon says: “Our focus is on a commemoration not a memorial,” adding that the project was built around a message of hope, resiliency and moving forward. The goal of the lesson plans, she says, is "to provide educators with solutions that can be customized to meet their needs and suit their teaching styles." Such assistance — in New York particularly — meets a distinct need, as reflected by a study conducted earlier this year for the city's former Board of Education by psychologists and public health researchers working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results showed that 10.5 percent of children in grades 4 through 12 suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; with an even larger percentage — 15 percent — demonstrating characteristics of agoraphobia, a fear of public spaces.

The plans are age-appropriate, and divided into two groups: For students Pre-K through fifth grade, and for students sixth to 12th grade. Lesson plans for younger students address primary concerns of personal safety and fear of the unknown, emphasizing empathy skills and issues such as what's being done to make the nation safer, and questions about heroism. Middle graders can analyze messages in post 9/11 songs and can gain deeper understanding about tolerance through a lesson on “Examining and Understanding Hate”. Older students are confronted with more complex issues relating to personal values, history, and media portrayal of September 11, and are supplied with opportunities to participate in social and civic events.

— Joe Lugara and Meryl Feiner