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9/11 Remembered:  Explaining Tragedies to Children

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

By Ms. Anisa Foy

Planes crashing into buildings, mass kidnappings, public executions, and beheadings – as our recent news shows, sometimes our world is filled with horrific tragedies. Exposing children to such acts of hate seems cruel, especially when I think back on my own reaction to September 11, 2001:

I reached to switch off the TV and froze, was that a plane that flew into that very tall building in New York? I stood rooted to the spot and a little while later another plane went into the other tower. Something horrible was happening in New York. I knew I had to leave or I’d be late for school. As I drove to school the news on the car radio made me realize our world had changed forever. I was full of fear and shock myself, but I knew I had to do something constructive to calm the children and make them feel secure.

In fact, almost every adult I know remembers exactly what they were doing when they found out.  The terror did not escape my students that day either.  While I would love for all my students to live happily in a utopian world, I believe the best lesson a teacher can provide is teaching children how to live in the real world.  This includes understanding why such tragedies occur, and how to deal with them.  On September 11th, I followed my own instincts to teach my students.  Looking back, I can summarize my experience into four steps.

1.  Understand that children may be devastated, and make it your goal to ease their anxiety.

As I entered the school I found a bunch of very frightened children. They had watched the news in their homes, and the TV in the child care room showed the horror live as it unfolded. When my 9, 10 and 11 year old children trooped into class, they were full of fear, full of questions. “Why are people blowing up our beautiful buildings, do they hate us, will they come after us next, who is going to keep us safe?” Some children were crying quietly. I wanted to switch the TV off but they begged me to keep it on.

2.  Explain that hate is created from misunderstanding.

My main focus was not to feed their fear, but to encourage discussions of how hate and misunderstanding could be replaced by the power of love.  We discussed how acts like these were fueled by hate and negativity, and as long as our country stayed strong and united we would be safe.

3.  Let children express their honest feelings, in multiple ways.

After a while, I switched the TV off and encouraged conversations of patriotism, understanding and love. I encouraged the children to write, discuss, and draw what they were feeling.  The last thing I wanted was for them to hold in or hide their feelings.  Each child expresses him/herself best in his/her own way.

4.  Give hope, and help children regain their sense of control.

As we talked, and they wrote or draw, they began to calm down.  The discussion and activity gave them a sense of control; they felt they were finding a solution to the problem. The children had seen the worst, but I wanted them not to lose hope.

As a class, we did a group activity to reinforce the hope, and the fact that they were not helpless.  I started them off with a poem I had written after the Columbine tragedy in 1999.

Fill Your Heart with Love By Anisa Foy

Fill your heart with love my friend, let there be no room for hate. Fill your heart with love today, tomorrow may be too late. Love is caring, love is sharing, love is beautiful and kind. So fill your heart with love my friend, make hate so hard to find. All the children wrote beautiful lines which we put together into a wonderful poem of love and hope.

The Power of Love By the Upper Elementary class of 2001

Love is like a pretty flower,

Love is much better than hate.

Hate is like a fish stuck on fish bait.

Love is full of happiness and joy

Hate is like a broken toy.

A broken toy makes you sad

Hate makes you twisted and bad.

Love is wonderful

It helps in many ways

It throws out the bad, brings in the good,

And makes many happy days.

To love is to feel

To love is to care.

When a person stops loving

It is a horrible thing.

For no more good things,

Can this person bring.

So if everyone could help,

Could share,

Could feel,

Could care.

The world would be

Such a beautiful place.

And would welcome

Every human of every race.

By allowing the children to process their own feelings, I hoped to share the message that we are not helpless and any one of us can make a difference.  Love and care comes from within, and eventually overcomes hate.

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