A developmental approach
As confusing as the events of 9/11 were for adults, in the days and weeks after the attacks happened, it became clear that for many young kids, seeing media coverage of the attacks left them confused about when the attacks happened—and where.
"It's a scary topic, and young children particularly don't understand what they're seeing on TV," Brodsky Schur says. Even now, 10 years later, seeing footage of the Twin Towers in flames or the wreckage at the Pentagon, children might wonder: "Is this happening now? All over again?" she says.
As Myers-Walls explains, "it's important to talk about media and how media works so that children can begin to get a sense of how to separate things—and begin to understand what they're watching." Even by age nine, some kids might not have a firm grasp how television and online video work. In child psychology researchers often use one simple question to assess how well a child understands video: "Where does Sponge Bob [or another favorite fictional character] go when you turn off the TV?" If a child says that he goes to his home under the ocean, it is clear that they are still sorting out the boundaries of the medium, Myers-Walls says. "But if they say, 'Well, he's just a drawing,' then they get it."
Research has shown that trying to understand actual, factual chronology can also confuse young children. "Kids tend to run a lot of historical events together," Myers-Walls says. "When children have drawn pictures of war for me, they will end up combining swords and shields with bombs and guns—they'll put horses with airplanes."
Such mashup drawings can be an important starting point for working with elementary- and preschool-age kids. "What it does is it gets them thinking, and even if you don't recognize what they're trying to draw, the kids can tell you," Myers-Walls says. And from there, adults can step in to steer the conversation to address their misunderstandings or concerns.
But when it comes to deciding how to actively teach kids about September 11th, their age and cognitive level are obvious factors. For younger children, stories of individuals can be a great way to communicate abstract concepts or historical time periods. But, Brodsky Schur says, in the case of 9/11, it is probably not a good idea to discuss "stories from the personal perspective of what people suffered. I think that's a tricky angle from a psychological perspective." To get down to the finer details of the events, it is likely best to wait "until children are able to read about it on their own and be able to evaluate the sources of what they're reading—who's telling them and from what perspective," she says. That cognitive and pedagogical leap usually occurs around the fourth and fifth grade.
After that advance occurs, work with children has shown that they start to take a keener interest in actively gathering information. Turned loose online, however, kids might become overwhelmed with accounts and reflections of all types. So it is important, Myers-Walls says, for children at this stage to have a little guidance from adults, who can help them learn ways to look for information and to assess its source. Additionally, she notes, "It gives you a chance to discuss some things as they come up," she says.
Once full adolescence hits, kids often prefer to focus on the abstract ideas, emotions and causes and effects surrounding events. At this age, "they may say some rather outlandish things," Myers-Walls notes, adding that it's okay to let them explore ideas and operate in the realm of the hypothetical.
This developmental step also means that, "as they grow older, children are more frightened by portrayals of abstract concepts," noted Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University in Tempe and Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine, in a paper published in the September issue of American Psychologist. "By adolescence, youths' mental abilities to grasp concepts of geographical space and contrary-to-fact propositions might allow them to understand the full magnitude of the 9/11 attacks and imagine the possibilities of future attacks," they noted.