Dealing with children's fears in the wake of disaster

Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Paul Kubena, Sterling Elementary School principal, called all students and staff into the school library at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning following the terrorist crisis unfolding on the East Coast.

"Mr. Kubena held a meeting with the teachers prior to school," said Barbara Eastham, a secretary at Sterling Elementary School. "He instructed them to reassure children that this is a safe place."

Although the Kenai Peninsula is far removed geographically from the site of these tragedies, the effects of the attacks reached as far as Alaska classrooms. Effectively addressing childrens' concerns, fears and questions has become an important issue for parents, teachers and school administrators.

"We simply talked about the school operating on a normal schedule," Kubena said. "Routine helps children cope."

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson said many students are talking about Tuesday morning's incidents.

"Most children are pretty savvy," she said. "Judging from phone calls this morning from parents asking about school closings, people know what's going on. Kids have been talking about it on the bus this morning."

Considering that Alaska has not been directly affected by the incident, Peterson suggested that parents take the situation in stride when addressing the issue with their children.

"We hope people follow our routine," Peterson said. "Our teachers are proceeding with their day as normal and using this as a teachable moment in history. We aren't having a huge reaction."

Kubena said communication is essential.

"All of our buildings have a critical incident response plan," he said. "When they have something of this magnitude, there are certain things we do to promote communication."

He said there is one major responsibility schools have in a situation like this.

"We have to reinforce the reality that our school is safe."

James Ballentine, a counselor at Homer High School, said the day's tragedy should not be ignored.

"It needs to be talked about," he said. "It's a topic that's OK to talk about."

He said parents should be discussing what their children talk about and making sure they have correct information.

Ballentine said that checking on the status of loved ones in affected areas is important. He said he has two daughters in Washington, D.C., and he confirmed that they are both OK. But beyond that, Ballentine said, little else can be done from Alaska.

"We don't hide from it, but we go on. Life goes on."

Thomas Osborne, another counselor who works at Seward Middle High School, suggested that parents emphasize that things are OK.

"It's not affecting me directly," Osborne said. "Explain that, yes, there are actions that we don't understand, like the closing of airports and federal facilities. And this is being done to maintain security."

Most importantly, Osborne said that parents should be honest. When presented with the question of what happens next, "it's OK to say, 'I don't know.' This isn't the time to look for scapegoats."

Helen Tomasulo, a counselor with Central Peninsula Counseling Services, spoke with several students at Skyview High School who were distraught over the tragedy.

"It's been pretty small," she said. "Just a handful."

"The biggest fear is going into another world war and how it would affect them," Tomasulo said. "I think their biggest fear is what they've heard about Vietnam."

"One girl had a brother that left to go to basic training," Tomasulo said. "Another girl had parents who left to go to Korea this morning. She has no way of knowing if they were on one of the planes or not."



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