For Teachers: Talking About the Terrorist Attacks

The recent sniper shootings in Maryland and Virginia only add to the anxiety and fear among young children – and adults.

In the aftermath of 9/11, kids across the country may have serious concerns and questions about the sniper attacks and their own personal safety. As a teacher or caregiver, you have a special role in the lives of children. What can you say to help children cope? How much you discuss the latest sniper attacks will depend on the age and maturity of your students.

Here are some suggestions for discussion in the classroom:

Be honest. As teachers know, children are often more aware than adults might realize. Avoid speculation and embellishment. Remember that children at various stages of development may need different information.

  • Very young children – preschool age – need only brief explanations and many reassurances.
  • School-age children understand reality but lack perspective. Their fear is real and often focuses on the fact that this could happen to them. Their safety and security and that of their loved ones are of primary concern.
  • Adolescents need facts and discussion.

Make your students feel safe. Discuss in concrete terms what procedures are in place in your school for dealing with emergencies. Review procedures.

Be a good listener. Communication is the key. Hold question-and-answer sessions and assure them that all their emotional responses will be accepted.

Remember that there are many expressions of grief. Not all children will cry, and not all will be fearful. Keep an eye out for changes in behavior. Having experienced a personal tragedy or other trauma (such as being bullied or abused) can worsen the reaction in some kids.

Take care of yourself. Your students need you.

Talk with other teachers. You are a valuable resource to each other. Share your time and resources, particularly phone numbers for mental health intervention.

Watch for warning signs in your students. Hearing repeated news reports about the sniper may evoke feelings of shock, anxiety, helplessness, sleeplessness, depression. If you notice these symptoms interfering with your students’ lives, let parents and the school counselor in on your concerns. Post-traumatic stress disorder can result if a person experiences continued stress.

Kids and families all over the country are likely to be as concerned as those who live in Maryland and Virginia. If you have a student whose behavior concerns you, bring it to the attention of your school counselor or principal so that psychological help can be given.

At the same time, students need to understand that expressing anger in the form of violence at school is unacceptable. Help your students find ways to express anger appropriately.

Communicate with parents. Consider sending notes home to parents explaining safety measures in place and what signs to look for in their children if they suspect depression or a post-traumatic stress reaction. Many schools, especially those in Maryland and Virginia, will have counselors, crisis specialists, and psychologists on hand. Urge parents to make use of these resources. And if you notice a child having a particularly difficult time, let the child’s parent and a school counselor know.

Teachable Moments

Help your children sort out their feelings through art, writing, role playing, and physical outlets. Select articles from the newspaper or magazines to read and discuss together. It may also help if they’re allowed to “get involved” in some way. Have your students make signs of support or get-well cards for the victims or communities affected by the sniper, or ask them to write letters to the families.

According to the National Education Association, the routine of school can be comforting to children, and so can the support of teachers, administrators, and other students.