Dealing with the disaster:

Teachers help students cope with Trade Center attack

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By JOSH NICHOLS

Daily Press writer

It's easy to do. Go home from work, sit in the recliner, and watch clip after clip of the 24-hour news coverage of arguably the worst disaster in the United States' history.

Jim Rugh, Sunset Elementary School principal, said despite his own tendency to sit and stare at the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on television, he thinks it's unhealthy to watch the coverage for a long period of time, and he thinks that is especially true for young children.

"Seeing it over and over is not healthy for anyone," he said. "If children are going to watch it, they should only do it in brief segments."

Rugh said the Sunset Elementary School staff had a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss how would deal with students returning to school after seeing the news the night before.

"Kids came back with visuals Wednesday morning," Rugh said. "At this age, it is a reality but not as internalized as it is in adults."

He said teachers did not conduct classroom discussions on the issue, but did have individual discussions with students if they expressed interest.

"Children with concerns were provided with factual information," he said.

It's been an ordinary week in school, Rugh said. A counselor is available for students who want to talk, but no students have shown a considerable amount of concern.

Alison Hobson, Sunset Elementary School counselor said there is a general trend that has been noticed in children's reactions.

"We're noticing that they're afraid," she said. "They're asking, 'What does this mean for us? Are we going to war?'"

One thing adults must be aware of is that children might act happy and unaffected by the situation, but this is not necessarily the case, Hobson said.

"Kids can see this stuff on the news and go out and play happily," she said, "but they might really be feeling upset."

Adults should express to children that they are also scared and upset about the situation, while downplaying these feelings at the same time, she said.

Adults need to reassure the children that they will keep them safe and take care of the problem.

"The most important thing adults can do is give children the opportunity to talk about it if they want to," she said.

Students' awareness of the situation varies greatly from one student to the next, she said. Some children live in families that have followed the situation closely, while some children might be unaware of what has happened.

Neither instance is necessarily better than the other, she said. It is just important that parents and teachers are available to answer questions when they arise.

On Wednesday morning, Hobson said she put a list of guidelines for teachers in the faculty lounge advising them on how to address the issue with the children. She said the guidelines can also be beneficial to parents.

Some of the guidelines were:

Allow kids a chance to talk about their feelings.

Share your feelings. Model how to express feelings.

Normalize a variety of feeling responses including fear, worry, anger, sadness, disbelief, wanting to help and forgetting for periods of time and playing happily.

Give reassurance that adults are going to keep them safe.

Maintain routine.

Shield from television or limit and supervise television while allowing kids a chance to talk about what they have seen or heard.

For older children, provide historical examples to demonstrate that we will get through this and be OK.

Very young pre-verbal children should not be exposed to these images at all, Hobson said.

"I don't want my daughter seeing these images on television," she said.

But for school-age children, it is unrealistic to think that they are not going to see and hear things, she said. That is why parents must be available to talk.

"Information is always better than ignorance for children," she said.

Overall, Hobson said children at Sunset have taken the disaster in stride, but concerns have been addressed as they've been raised.

"I had one child afraid and asking if we were going to war," she said. "I also had a parent call and ask how to handle the situation because her son has always been sensitive to disasters like plane crashes."

Phil Thomas, principal of Ridgeview Elementary and Maybell Elementary schools, said every school in the district was instructed to handle the situation in the same way and thus far, the children have been handling the situation fine.

"We've been using the teachable moments and sticking to the facts," he said. "If someone is feeling bad we have them see a counselor."

Judi Whilden, owner of Sunrise Kids Preschool and Child Care, said the parents of the children in her school deserve some credit.

"Basically, it didn't happen according to these preschoolers," she said.

If the parents have been making a conscious effort to shield their children from the coverage, it seems to be working, she said.

She agreed with Hobson on the belief that preschool children are too young to deal with such issues.

The second, third and fourth graders that she walks home after school talk about it, she said, and they come up with some crazy information on the playground sometimes.

"I just try to make sure they have all the facts," she said.

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