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Dealing with War and Terrorism in the Classroom


Curriculum CenterLast night, the United States launched a much-anticipated war with Iraq -- a war that is certain to be characterized by intensive and unprecedented media coverage. Most teachers will have to deal regularly with their students' reactions to, and questions about, the events of that war. To help them do that, today Education World offers educators expert tips on how to address the issues of war and terrorism with their students. Included: Strategies for discussing war and terrorism with different age groups.

During the past month, terrorism alerts and talk of war with Iraq have become almost as much a part of daily life in the United States as weather forecasts and traffic alerts. As a result, many teachers have been left wondering how much -- if at all -- they should discuss with their students about terrorism and war.

How teachers address those topics, experts say, depends on a community's circumstances, students' ages, and the level of concern expressed by the students. Obviously, some children -- such as those who live near military bases and those who live near sites of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- are affected more than others. But all students can benefit from activities, both inside and outside the classroom, that help them feel more responsible and more confident during unsettling times.


Lessons, activities, and discussions about war and terrorism are necessary because the issues are part of most students' lives, according to Dr. Robert Gillio, whose company InnerLink, Inc. provides online science, health, and safety education products and services. Gillio, who volunteered at Ground Zero for several weeks following the World Trade Center attacks, also wrote a book Lessons from Ground Zero, which includes lesson plans for helping children cope with disasters.

"Many students are suffering sub-clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder or are living with someone who is," he told Education World, maintaining that most know someone in the military, or know of someone who is in the service. "Through the media, every terrorist attack anywhere in the world is played repeatedly in their homes on television and rehashed in the newspaper," Gillio said. "Students need to be able to express their fears and have them dealt with -- using information, planning, training, and counseling where necessary.

"Teachers can adapt the Lessons from Ground Zero lesson plans to whatever situation they are preparing students for," Gillio added, "putting the emphasis on learning to make decisions and thinking through challenges they may not have been prepared to encounter."

Being truthful about a situation is effective with most children, Gillio said. In dealing with young children, he recommends that teachers

  • answer their questions honestly, but try not to tell them more than they ask.
  • provide the opportunity for children to ask questions in private or submit them in writing.
  • have children draw pictures about anything that frightens them, and then talk to each child individually about his or her picture.

The American Red Cross also offers resources for teaching young children about readiness. Those include the Be Ready 1-2-3 Instructor's Manual and accompanying Be Ready 1-2-3 Book for 4 to 7 year olds. Through that curriculum, children learn about disaster preparedness, with help from Cool Cat, Ready Rabbit, and Disaster Dog.

Masters of Disaster, another American Red Cross curriculum, provides K-8 students with lessons and activities on preparing for natural and other types of disasters.

Additional resources are available from theNational Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Those include Helping Children Cope in Unsettling Times -- Tips for Parents and Teachers and Children and Fear of War and Terrorism -- Tips for Parents and Teachers.

When talking with children or answering their questions about war and terrorism, the NASP emphasizes that it is critical for adults to help children feel safe and, especially with young children, to differentiate between war and terrorism. Some children may think that U.S. security precautions mean war is going to break out near their homes.

According to the NASP, during the current climate, teachers especially need to keep an eye on youngsters who are more susceptible to stress, such as those who

  • live in proximity to past traumatic events or in "high" target areas.
  • have suffered a personal loss from -- or had firsthand exposure to -- terrorism, violence, or military actions.
  • have parents currently in the military or on active duty in the reserve forces.
  • have parents who fought in past conflicts, such as the Gulf War.
  • have parents involved in emergency response or public safety professions.
  • whose ethnic heritage might make them feel threatened by intolerance or racism.
  • already suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, or other mental illnesses.

Some schools prefer to handle the issues on a case-by-case basis. In the Williamsport (Pennsylvania ) Area School District, according to district psychologist Brenda Frazier, if a child expresses undue concern about war or the possibility of a terrorist attack, teachers are told to acknowledge those fears and matter-of-factly tell the child about safety precautions in place to keep kids safe. If that child's anxiety increases, Frazier said, he or she would be referred to a guidance counselor and parents would be contacted.


Schools with large populations of military dependents know they have an extra responsibility, because their students already are directly affected. In those schools, many students have watched parents leave for overseas duty; others are waiting for the call. Support staff members in the Cumberland County School District in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which abuts Ft. Bragg, mobilized quickly when military deployments began. Although Ft. Bragg has some base schools, about 30 percent of Cumberland County's 70,000 students are affiliated with the military base, according to Robbin Tatum, district coordinator of counseling services.

The district formed a Military Child Task Force that includes school and base personnel. Staff members underwent training on how to counsel students individually and in groups, and teachers participated in professional development programs designed to help them identify children who might be especially anxious. Schools also made sure they had current phone numbers, so they could quickly reach students' parents or guardians.

Counselors talk to students in groups about living with uncertainty. "Counselors talk to kids about how to deal with stress, and they discuss the loss of control students might feel when circumstances change," Tatum explained. Some children have had both parents deployed, forcing them to stay with relatives. "We try to keep their school routine as normal as possible," she added.

Some of the youngest students were not certain what "deployment" meant, Tatum noted, and that was explained to them. The topic of patriotism is covered as well; staff members tell students whose parents are in the service that "they are doing something noble." Children also are reassured that it is okay to be angry or upset because a parent or other relative is away, and they are encouraged to channel their anger into positive activities --activities they have control over.

School staff also have met with parents of children in the military, and advised them of behaviors that might indicate that their children are over-stressed. For those with younger children, staff members suggest that the parent who is leaving videotape himself or herself reading a story to the child, and also record a holiday message. "We also tell them to try to maintain as normal a routine as possible," Tatum told Education World.

Older children can meet with parents and discuss ways they can provide extra help for the family while a parent is away, which can help build self-esteem.


In addition to giving older students more responsibility at home, providing them with factual information and opportunities to voice their opinions can help them feel more secure and confident, according to Susan Graseck, director of the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program. Part of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Choices is committed to encouraging interest in international issues, through teaching and professional development.

Choices' staff members developed lesson plans called Teaching with the News: Crisis with Iraq, which teachers can use to help students understand the background and current issues involved in the U.S.-Iraq dispute.

"That curriculum, which is being used by more than 3,500 schools, allows students to look at different topics and decide what they think," Graseck told Education World. "That way, they can be part of the conversation. Sometimes, it's scarier when you don't know enough to participate. The ability to understand is one way to deal with fears."

Gillio agrees with the idea of fortifying high-school-aged students with information. "Older students need to be made aware that the world is changing around them. They remember a time only a year and a half ago, when average Americans were only afraid if they were in the wrong neighborhood after dark. They remember when the rest of the world respected and cherished our presence and what we stood for. They need to realize that they are inheriting problems that are not their fault, but that will affect them.

"They need to get as smart as they can about their own personal health and safety, and be able to step in if something happens to someone else. They need to be sure their homes and schools are prepared for a variety of unlikely scenarios and have plans and supplies ready. Teachers need to stress the unlikely nature of terrorist threats, and focus on the secondary benefit of becoming a smarter, safer, and healthier student, living in a community that is increasingly pulling together."

Building the "Freedom Generation"

This generation of youngsters has a unique place in American history, and educators and parents should encourage youngsters to create a legacy for themselves and their children, according to Dr. Robert Gillio, author of Lessons from Ground Zero.

"This should be Generation Freedom," Gillio told Education World. "This is the last group that will remember the America before daily fear and before it was acceptable to be searched prior to entry into any public place, event, or transportation center.

"Teachers need to realize that these kids are living in a time of revolutionary changes, a time analogous to the era of the Gutenberg printing press," he continued. "Kids have the power to do good, and to have it geometrically affect the millions who see it, read about it, or get involved with it."

According to Gillio, unlike past generations, today's young people have no positive collective memories -- such as the Allied victory in World War II, President Kennedy's inauguration speech, or men walking on the moon. "This generation's common memories are tragedies rather than triumphs: the Columbine High School shootings, the terrorist attacks, and the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. Teachers need to help students build positive memories. If our leaders won't provide them with common positive memories, let's at least create them on a school or community basis," Gillio said.

Among the activities that Gillio feels can help students develop positive common memories, by making spare time "care time" are

* interviewing their heroes and writing about them.
* creating art and music that capture their memories before they fade.
* using the Internet to share their insights.
* learning basic knowledge about democracy, other cultures, first aid, safety, and volunteerism.
* working together in their communities to solve problems that teamwork can solve.
* organizing a health fair at school.
* involving health-care professionals as mentors and building baseline health records for the community's first responders.
* organizing appreciation ceremonies and awards' presentations for local heroes -- such as grandparents, crossing guards, or employers -- who care for them daily.
* taking trips to historic places.

"This generation needs to be the Freedom Generation, and make up for the mistakes and hate our generation has left them to grow up in," added Gillio. "If they are not the Freedom Generation, there may not be a chance for a generation to follow them."

Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2003 Education World