Back To School For Children and Teens Affected by 9/11
By Dr. Robin F. Goodman, VOICES Director of Family Programs
As the summer winds down, parents and kids begin to think about starting school. For families affected by 9/11, back to school time brings with it specific questions, challenges, and sad memories. Keep in mind that the issues vary with the age of the child, the child or teen’s academic, social, and emotional functioning, and the family’s personal situation.
The following points and suggestions are offered to help guide parents and students in planning for the new school year. Ultimately the best plan is the one that fits for each individual child.
• Pre-schoolers and parents often face separation difficulties as children head off to school for the first time. Very young children of a parent who died on 9/11 likely do not have their own memory of the event but will have heard stories about the day and their parent. Their understanding of what happened – along with their questions- will increase as they get older, learn new things, encounter new situations, and meet new people.
• School age children are very involved with peers. Often their biggest concerns center on their social status. They worry about fitting in, being liked, and being like everyone else. Therefore they likely do not want to be different and singled out as a “9/11 kid.”
• Teenagers are becoming – and feel – independent. Like school age children, they want to be a regular teen without being labeled as a 9/11 student. But teens are most prone to hide their true feelings from adults. This is especially difficult for parents and teens as they struggle with the usual ups and downs of adolescence.
• College students are in a new phase of life filled with new choices and freedoms. They face an array of significant issues, many related to their physical and/or emotional separation from home and family. Changes in the family composition can impact roles, responsibilities, and relationships of the college student, the parent, and siblings left at home. In addition, whether students live at home or away, it can be exciting to be on one’s own but also a time for testing out new and different activities, academic interests, friends, and identities.
Some questions to consider related to school at any age
• Is the child returning to the same school or a beginning in a new school?
• How much do you want the school personnel to know about your personal situation?
• Is there someone identified as a resource for you and your child?
• Are their other “9/11” students in the school?
• What approach would you like the school to use with your child? Parents vary in their desire to have teachers “cut their children some slack” vs. “treat them like other kids.”
Things to keep in mind
• The combination of the start of school with unfamiliar teachers, rules, and expectations along with the anniversary of 9/11 can make for a rocky start. It is not unusual to experience an “anniversary reaction” as the date approaches and previous feelings surface. Find out how the school will commemorate 9/11, make suggestions, and plan accordingly.
• Consider your child’s strengths and weaknesses in all areas; academic, athletic, social. It can be instructive for you and your children and teens to think through the things that make them special, that they are skilled at doing, and perhaps identifying personal goals for the year.
• Get and keep children connected. This is important for students of all ages. Renew school age children’s participation in activities which they enjoyed in the past and look for new opportunities for them to be engaged with other kids and adults. College students can easily feel overwhelmed and alone. Therefore they too will benefit from being involved with a group of people who share a particular interest. Encourage all students to try new things and take risks. Both success and failure are important for learning.
• Attend to any unique challenges of children with special needs such as physical disabilities, learning differences, or emotional problems. It is especially important to be an advocate for your child so the student gets the required and deserved services.
• Recognize that school is part of the world outside the family. Students and parents must be prepared for the sometimes curious, insensitive, and awkward comments as everyone makes their way in a post-9/11 life.
Collaborate with school personnel
• Consider that every September is a new school year. There’s a great deal that happens in school. Parents can not assume that information about their child gets passed along from teacher to teacher, year to year. Parents should remind school personnel about their situation and communicate information they think is necessary for teachers and staff to know.
• Help educate school staff to any sensitive issues or activities. For example, teachers, parents, and students will appreciate and benefit from thinking ahead about a family tree project or an upcoming father-daughter dance for a bereaved student. Keep an eye on the year’s activities to anticipate times that may require special handling.
• Keep tabs on academic progress. Problems with trauma and grief can affect attention, concentration, and learning, hence interfere with school performance. Teachers, parents, and the students themselves may not be aware of the connection to 9/11. Therefore as soon as changes or difficulties arise, it is important to investigate the cause and seek the appropriate evaluation and intervention.
• Be involved and seek out school resources for school age and teen children. And help college students to access the right services locally. Parents, students, and school personnel all benefit by sharing ideas and working together
Collaborate with children and teens
• Talk to children and teens about the issues they may face and problem solve together. Some children are rather forthright about their situation, whereas others want to keep the information private. It can help to role play or practice answers to even the most simple questions, such as “where’s your dad?” so they feel most comfortable.
• A supportive social network is extremely important. However, children vary in when, how, and to whom they want to disclose their 9/11 background. Help the student decide what feels most comfortable. This is especially important when making new friends.
• Be a good role model for students. As always, having and maintaining healthy eating, sleeping, exercise, and study habits benefits the whole family.
Although the transition to school can be unsettling, in a short time, most students will make a smooth transition to the school routine. If problems linger or become worse, consult a school or mental health professional.