As students return to school Wednesday with fresh questions and a new understanding of the horror unleashed on U.S. soil, experts say educators and parents must reassure children that they are safe but deal realistically with their fears.
While nearly all area schools expect to open as scheduled Wednesday, school officials scrambled after schools closed Tuesday to plan for what is expected to be an emotional day for staff and students. Many say they will mobilize teams of psychologists and social workers to deal with the aftermath.
"This is going to be a trauma that goes on and on," said Bennett Leventhal, a University of Chicago psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescent issues. "It's going to escalate, and it's surely going to affect how we live our lives. And what makes it most complicated is there's a lot we don't know and that's disturbing to children and adults."
Many parents struggled Tuesday night to calmly explain events that left them shaken and uncertain, heeding the advice of experts that advised them to limit exposure to the terrifying images replayed on newscasts.
Child behavior experts advise parents to consider their children's age, maturity and temperament when deciding what to tell them and whether they should watch TV reports.
Toddlers and preschoolers will mirror the emotional response of the adults closest to them, but they will not be able to process what happened beyond the most basic facts, such as "some bad people who are mad at our country hurt lots of people in some buildings and airplanes." Children at this age will often ask the same question, which parents should deal with in a calm and consistent way, experts said.
Grade-school children will look at the events in the most concrete way without thinking about the broader implications, but they will also take emotional cues from parents and teachers. Parents could introduce the idea of terrorism by making comparisons to bullying, which even the youngest grade schoolers will understand. Teenagers can grasp the bigger meaning of the violence, and parents should be open to a realistic discussion of what might happen in the future--from intense security at airports to the possibility of military retaliation.
At every age, children need to be told they are safe and protected, even if they don't appear to be troubled by the catastrophe. And if a child is very sensitive to violent images, any exposure to newscasts should be restricted.
"If kids have seen the horrible pictures over and over again, it can sink into the brain and leave a bruise," said David Clark, a psychologist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital. "Some symptoms of anxiety and depression are normal for us the next couple days. There's nothing wrong with feeling frightened and vulnerable, but if kids pick up they might not be safe in bed, they won't sleep."
Child psychiatrist Richard Martini said parents and school officials need to keep a normal schedule, which soothes and reassures children even if they don't appear to be upset. He advised against scheduling school assemblies or canceling events.
Other experts suggested that parents take time to reflect on the events in a way that's most meaningful to their family, be it praying with their children or touching base with distant family members. But that can be done without disrupting dinner schedules or bedtime routines.
Parents and educators also need to brace for the long haul because it might be weeks or months before trauma takes hold. "It is important to acknowledge this is a frightening thing," Martini said. "You don't want to falsify danger. Kids will figure it out."
When the news broke Tuesday, many grade schools offered only general information in public announcements and during class but insulated pupils from details of the tragedy, especially younger children who buzzed about the plane crashes as if they were in a movie.
Other schools opted to handle the crisis head-on, offering older students a chance to watch newscasts and address its more frightening implications during class discussions.
At Newberry Academy, a magnet school in Lincoln Park, teachers and administrators used the attacks as a way to discuss foreign policy and America's role in other countries.
"This event, while tragic, should not be swept under the rug where our children are concerned," said Renaud Beaudoin, principal of 560 pupils in kindergarten to 8th grade. "Great lessons can be learned and discussions need to take place."
While Newberry students said they were pleased that school officials let them watch the news and talk about their thoughts and fears, the exposure to news reports left some students feeling vulnerable.
Michael Horton, 12, and his 7th-grade classmates were listening to the television when the newscaster said flights across the country had been grounded. Moments later, Michael said, a plane flew over.
"A bunch of us ran to the window and I thought, `Oh my God, the Sears Tower is next. They are coming to get the tower,'" Michael said. "But then the teacher told us all to sit down and not to panic. And we talked about what had already happened and that we were safe. I'm never going to forget where I was when this happened."
In Chicago, officials are planning for a normal school day with some subtle differences. Counselors and other staff members will be available throughout the day to comfort shaken students. Chicago police officers already stationed at many high schools will be a more visible security presence.
Still, school officials do not want a repeat of Tuesday's chaotic scenes like the one outside Ogden Elementary, where parents lined up more than a dozen deep to take their kids out early from the Near North Side school. At least 200 of 500 pupils were picked up by noon.
The U.S. flag flew at half-staff at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, where administrators canceled athletic practices, club meetings and a soccer game with rival Elk Grove High School on Tuesday afternoon.
"Tomorrow, we're going to try to run everything as normal, but today we felt our students and staff needed to be with their families," Principal Joseph Schlender said. "Our kids, I think, are going to be like the rest of society. They're going to be trying to process this."
Tribune staff reporters Ray Quintanilla, Bob Condor, Carolyn Starks and Mike Higgins contributed to this report.
Emotional day expected for students
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