The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a shocking and emotionally raw event that most adults, especially in the U.S., still have trouble comprehending. For children under 14, however, the events of that day are but a page of history, a modern-day Pearl Harbor.
Now, with the 10th anniversary of these attacks upon us, psychologists, educators and parents are thinking again about how best to teach children about the traumatic day and its aftermath—as well as the complicated threat of terrorism.
"It's such an unprecedentedly scary event of unimaginable proportions," says Joan Brodsky Schur of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, who was living and teaching at the Village Community School in Manhattan the day of the attacks. After the attacks, there was a rush of resources and research throughout the U.S. to help adults make sure kids were coping.
But with that first generation now in high school, college or beyond, priorities have changed. As media coverage of the anniversary ramps up and discussions of terrorism, national security and wars resurface, many adults will try to explain the event to kids of all ages. Advances in child psychology and educational research are helping adults these days to better fine-tune their message to meet children's developmental level—which is not only crucial in helping children understand what happened, but also for handling fears and anxieties that are likely to arise. Previous efforts were often one-size-fits-all, regardless of age.
And to ensure that kids feel secure in the face of renewed discussion of terrorism and its potential horrors, researchers have turned a close eye onto the ways in which kids understand—and often misunderstand—the media and historical events.
Kids think the darnedest things
A kindergarten classroom might not seem like the most natural place to have a discussion about 9/11. But it is likely a necessity. The events of that day likely have cropped up in recent media coverage that children of all ages are exposed to, even if they lack a personal reference point.
That does not mean, however, that they cannot still be deeply affected by such coverage. In an analogous situation that Brodsky Schur recounts, during a field trip to a cathedral earlier this year, an eight-year-old boy looked worried and asked what happens when a person dies. She later checked in with the boy's homeroom teacher to see if something in his home life might have prompted the question. She discovered, rather, that his concern had been sparked by media coverage of the religious fringe group that had been promoting May 21 as judgment day and the end of the world. A seemingly frivolous news story that was easily dismissed by adults surrounding them had, according to the teacher, actually affected many children in the class.
Unlike the worried boy on the field trip, not all children verbalize their fears to adults, leaving misapprehensions—and acute apprehensions—unaddressed. So studying the perspective of children when they are playing freely can be a good way to gather clues about what they are thinking and how they are feeling about complicated topics. "Watching the kids' play may pick up that they have some fears of misunderstandings that you might want to deal with," says Judy Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University in Indiana.