The terror attacks that happened on September 11, 2001, are shocking and emotionally disturbing for adults, let alone for a little brain in development. So, how to teach kids about September 11 without scaring them?
It’s completely understandable to have worries when it comes to teaching dark periods of history to little kids. Whether you’re a homeschool tutor, or a teacher in preschool, elementary, or middle school, this task remains a big challenge. Researching the best way to approach the topic of 9/11 is a smart idea and means you truly care about your students’ wellbeing.
Today, we are fortunate because advancements in child psychology have helped us better understand how kids process traumatic events. With this knowledge in mind, we created a simple guide that will help you teach kids about September 11 without scaring them. Keep reading to find out what are the best, safest approaches for kids of all ages.
When to Introduce the Topic Of September 11?
Talking about 9/11 in a kindergarten classroom might not seem like a good idea. In fact, being nervous and wanting to protect children from such horrors is completely normal. However, the truth is that speaking to kids about September 11 as early as kindergarten might be a necessity.
The reason for this is that the events of that day were, and still are, heavily covered by the media worldwide. Sooner or later the child will hear or see something. After all, 9/11 wasn’t just an isolated event. It also set in motion a war, the effects of which are still being felt and played out today. Therefore, if the subject is avoided the child will make assumptions and try to fill in the blanks, which could end up in them thinking there’s still something to be scared of, or that they and the people they care about could be under threat.
While we can’t keep them in the dark (because this can make things a lot worse), we can make sure they find out in a safe way. To do this, you first must find out whether and what they already know and clear any misconceptions. After this, we’ve laid out a step-by-step teaching strategy you can follow with kids of all ages, including preschoolers.
A Safe Approach to Teaching Kids About September 11
Covering a difficult topic in a classroom is always a challenge, as there are many different personalities and you can’t know what each of them is thinking or feeling. This is why listening should always be your first step with kids.
- Ask What They Already Know About September 11
When you start your class, introduce the lesson without sharing any information, and ask your students what they know about it. Simply say something along the lines of “Today we’re going to talk about the September 11 attacks. But first, I want to know what have you heard about this until now?”
Encourage your students to share their opinions by assuring them there are no right or wrong answers. Make them believe that you’re there to tell them the whole truth and if there’s something they’re confused about, you can all discuss it together.
Listening to children is the foundation on which you can base your approach. You’ll get valuable feedback and assess the children’s level of comprehension.
- Clear Any Misconception About September 11
The information we’re exposed to is not always reliable, which means children may have heard things that are misleading or completely false.
Before you start sharing the facts, address these misconceptions or myths. This is important because kids will connect their previous knowledge with your class, which can easily result in them being overwhelmed or scared.
Even if you think it’s not necessary, never forget to stress “No, that’s not true because….” as children need to feel reassured.
- Share the Facts
Now it’s time for the lecture. The most important thing in this step is to make sure your explanations, the textbooks you’re using, the reading materials, and/or visual content are suitable for the children’s age.
If you’re still looking for the adequate resources that will help you conceptualize this lesson, we’ve prepared an educational and completely non-threatening bundle of September 11 facts and worksheets you can use.
Plus, here are a few examples of how you can adjust your teaching depending on the grade-level in which you’re teaching.
Most of us expect preschoolers to be blissfully ignorant about the bad things in the world, but this is simply not true. Their brain is like a sponge that absorbs everything from its environment even if they still can’t fully process it. This is why it’s important to listen to everything they already know and start from there.
When it comes to preschoolers, keep it simple and stick to the basics. Don’t go into details.
For example: “September 11 is the day when airplanes crashed into two tall buildings called the Twin Towers and lots of people got hurt.”
Don’t use big, unfamiliar words like terrorist attacks, extremist groups, massive explosions, etc.
Focus more on answering the children’s questions and making sure they fully understand the meaning behind your words. It’s equally important to make sure kids understand why the event happened. You can answer their questions in a very simplistic way by saying something along the lines of: “….because some people with different beliefs were angry at America.”
Children from elementary school are even more likely to have heard something about September 11 on TV or on the Internet. This is why it’s important to find out what they know and clear any misconceptions.
After this, you can start sharing facts with more details, while still keeping it concrete and within context. They’re far too young to understand the politics behind the attacks and the nature of the terrorist groups.
For example, say: “September 11 is the day when four American airplanes were hijacked and they crashed. Two of them hit the Twin Towers where a lot of people got hurt.”
Children between the ages of 5 and 12 are still unable to process abstract concepts, and they have difficulty telling apart fantasy from reality. You should focus on reassuring kids that the event won’t be repeated, that not every airplane can be hijacked, and that now we have safety measures that are a lot stronger.
Middle School and High School
Children older than 11/12 years old can better understand the nature of the events, which is why you should expect the “why” questions.
As you go into more detail, be prepared to answer questions like “why would someone do such a thing?” or “why didn’t they stop them on time?”
These children want to feel reassured by finding logical answers, so never dismiss their concerns. Instead, acknowledge that there are some things we can’t always know or predict, but also, that people can make mistakes. Encourage students to discuss all the things that have improved since then, and what else can be improved so we can all feel safer.
- Finish the Lecture with Reassuring Words
Make students feel safe by telling them how problems are being resolved, and all the ways in which we’re safer today. Make sure they still feel that their little world is still safe and you, along with their parents, are there to protect them.
Even if you as an adult feel scared or uneasy yourself, don’t let the children notice that. It’s important for them to feel secure and protected by their authority figures, otherwise they’ll feel anxious and afraid.
Even if it doesn’t seem like it, 2001 was 19 years ago (wow!). While many adults (parents and teachers) watched the event unfold in real time, for kids this can seem like just another page in the history book – along with many other major historical events, like WWII.
The last 10 minutes of the class should be reserved for emotional feedback. Ask how they’re feeling and answer their questions. An honest open conversation will allow students to process and express their emotions. It can also be a good opportunity for you to open up to your students and allow them to ask where you were at that time, what you remember, and how you were affected.
You should acknowledge that complex emotions could surface. Tell children that it’s okay to feel confused, even scared a little, because it’s a sad event. However, always finish with words that bring hope and reassurance.
For example: “Although what happened on 9/11 is heartbreaking, we have learned so much from it. Today, our country and the whole world has a better security system and can protect us from such people.”
What About Graphic Images and Videos?
Although there’s no need to show images and videos to preschoolers and elementary students, middle school and high school kids will no doubt be curious. Chances are most of them have already Googled the term “9/11” Besides, leaving them curious, might be what provokes them to search for visuals in the first place. So, what’s the safest approach?
- Do your research and find images that are more or less “tasteful”.
- Avoid sensational and overly graphic content.
- Choose visual content that shows the crash or the damage to the Twin Towers without close-ups of the victims.
Just like your words, the pictures and videos should support the facts without revealing graphic details.
Before You Leave
We understand how difficult it is to explain to children the shocking and heartbreaking events that even adults have a hard time comprehending. This is exactly why we took a close look at the steps when teaching about 9/11, gave you practical examples you can use, and even prepared detailed worksheets. Hopefully, our article will help you teach kids about 9/11 calmly, emphatically, and without scaring them.
If you visit our website, you’ll find a lot more worksheets on a variety of subjects and other useful resources for teachers and homeschool tutors. We also have a blog, where we regularly share articles on a variety of topics related to education, homeschooling, and learning activities for kids.
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