Helping soothe children's fears

Schools: Local systems act to allay students'; anxiety and help parents do so at home.

October 23, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Sun Staff

Schools are closed or on lockdown, people crouch while pumping gas, parents refuse to leave the house to buy bread for their kids' lunches and now the media are repeatedly reporting that the sniper's letter contains direct threats against youths.

It's all sending a clear message to children: Be afraid, be very afraid.

"Our children learn more from what they see than what they hear," said Ted Feinberg, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "We cannot deny if we're feeling frightened and apprehensive [as adults], but I also know that when we convey those messages to children, it has a profound effect on them. ... We can't take it to that level of dysfunctional hysteria."

To stave off crippling anxiety and potential long-term damage to childrens' psyches, school administrators and psychologists across the Baltimore region have ordered crisis curriculum, mobilized their counselors and sent tip sheets home to parents.

The Howard County and Baltimore City school systems and several schools in Baltimore County have requested 3,200 copies among them of Facing Fear: Helping Young People Deal with Terrorism and Tragic Events.

It's a classroom program developed by the Red Cross after Sept. 11 that helps educators understand how students react to tragedy and methods to help them get through it. It includes grade-specific chapters on feelings, perspectives and ways to plan positively for the future.

"We're living through a difficult time: snipers, the one-year anniversary of 9/11 and that fire last week in Baltimore City," said Marian Finney, city schools curriculum specialist. "I saw [the Red Cross program] as an opportunity to really share with students some coping strategies and help them understand that fear is a natural part of life. It's the way you handle it that makes a difference."

Finney's office received the program yesterday, but Howard County was still waiting for its order and relying on methods already in place to help kids cope.

"We have a countywide model for providing crisis response," said Brian Bartels, who oversees the system's psychologists.

Every school has a crisis team, overseen by four regional crisis groups, and they work together to assess situations and meet student needs.

This has largely meant sending psychologists and counselors into classrooms when requested to deal with individual needs and posting information for parents online.

"The goal is to return the learning environment to a level where learning can take place," Bartels said.

That's easier said than done, though, particularly when student response varies so widely.

"It's a mixed bag, really," said Virginia Dolan, the Anne Arundel County school system's coordinator for psychological services. "Some of the high school kids just want to get back to their routines, and some want the windows covered, asking 'What if he's out there?'"

Dolan's team recommends that parents and teachers be honest with kids about the situation, without dwelling or going into elaborate detail.

"The adults are definitely the ones that are very mindful and aware of all the possibilities and implications," Dolan said. "They're having a much more significant reaction than the kids. ... We just survived a God-awful situation with 9/11, and here we go again. We're all under a heightened sense of vigilance and underlying stress."

But parents can't let it consume them because they have to be strong for their children, said Pam Blackwell, student services coordinator in Howard.

"Parents should share their feelings with kids, admit it's frightening," she said, "but that you'll do everything you can to keep them safe. Kids will sense something is wrong anyway, and what they imagine is always worse than reality, so you need to talk to them. But let them know that this is an unusual event, this is not the norm."

Warning signs that a child is having more trouble than usual include nightmares, physical aches such as stomach pains, excessive worry or clinging, Feinberg said.

If not dealt with, the fear can disrupt children's ability to do schoolwork, eat and sleep and even distort their general perceptions of the world, he added. And it can leave lasting scars.

"These events can have a cumulative effect," Feinberg said. "I wouldn't be surprised if as a result of this sniper situation - as a result of [Sept. 11], as a result of the ongoing crisis with Iraq - we have increasing incidents of youngsters with post-traumatic stress disorder."

The key to preventing that, educational psychologists agree, is getting to children before the stress does.

Feinberg acknowledges that it's not simple. He lives around the corner from where a bus driver was shot yesterday but didn't reach his Bethesda office until 1 p.m. because the dragnet had backed up traffic.

"Within my own being, I feel that this is too close for comfort," he said "While I understand cognitively all the things I'm telling you, I've still got to deal with a wife who's frightened and a daughter who lives in California calling every day to make sure we're OK. The potential for people and the system to break down the longer this goes on is of serious concern to me."

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