Attack on the U.S.: Guidelines for Teachers in the Classroom

by Richard Gallagher, PhD

New York City, Washington, Pennsylvania and the nation are abuzz with reactions to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Children are coming to school amidst this buzz. Depending upon their age, their personalities, and their family's experience, children are likely to be worried, scared, and concerned about their future, their family's future, and the future of our country. As a teacher, you will be facing these concerns as the children arrive in school and throughout the next days. Here are some guidelines for dealing with the children during this time:

  • Find out what your school has planned. Check with administrators for school-wide messages and procedures. It is very helpful for teachers to remain consistent in their support of children.

  • Be prepared to have a high volume of talk about the events. Try to keep this talk under control so that your classroom is in control.

  • Start the day with your usual routine and schedule at the beginning of the day, settle the class, and then let them know when there will be a time for discussion and questions about events.

  • Be alert to variations in children's reactions.

  • Children who are likely to be most upset and frightened are those who have a close connection to the events. First, children that were near the location of the attack or were direct witnesses of the attack are likely to be highly stressed. Those who had a relative, family friend, or neighbor harmed in the attack may be in emotional shock. Children who have watched events on the news only once or repeatedly may be very worried. Try to learn and understand each child's level of exposure.

  • No matter what level of exposure, some children will want to talk extensively about their experience, while others will not want to talk at all. Be ready to look for some children who may not want to be involved in the discussions. Find a way to provide those children with a secure setting that lets them cope more slowly with the events.

  • Those children who already have some emotional difficulty will probably have more concerns than others. A nervous child may have increased worries about safety, a sad child may be more withdrawn, and an active child may be particularly agitated while worries mix with difficulties in behavioral control.

  • Allow time for children to tell their stories about the day's events.

  • Collect questions from the children.

  • Answer those questions for which we know the facts, but keep in mind your audience. Do not overwhelm young children. Look to the guidelines below for typical reactions of children. Try to limit descriptions of gruesome details in general discussion. Youth that have seen injuries and harm can discuss these episodes privately or in small groups.

  • Reassure children that they are safe and that the responsible adults are making sure that they are safe. Although we cannot provide 100% assurance, all youth need to know that adults are taking care of them.

  • Turn to the school mental health staff with questions and concerns about particular students who seem especially anxious, agitated, or sad or who had extensive exposure to the incident.

  • Encourage children to let you know if they are experiencing distress at any time.

  • Find out who will be available to children throughout the day. Direct children to that resource for further conversation and support. Have children sign out to go to that setting, but make sure that they know that they can go at any time.

  • Return to some modified routine. Easing into the usual routine will help children feel calm and safe.

  • Keep parents informed about your actions so that they can be prepared for further talk. Encourage parents to limit their children's exposure to news reports and accounts.

  • Help students react without prejudice. Be on guard for angry reactions between students. Be especially careful that some students are not identified with perpetrators of this attack.

  • Remember that all of these reactions are typical. Be ready to help by listening, observing for high levels of distress, referring children to appropriate counselors, and returning to a settled routine while allowing for any needed discussion. Finally, take care of yourself. If events are distressing you, make sure that you talk to others and treat yourself.