Some Thoughts on Talking to Young Children about September 11th

A Personal Note from MaryEllen Salamone

To Teachers Everywhere-

On September 11, 2001 my husband John was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. My children were just six, four and two years old. I learned very quickly how to discuss the death of my husband and the events of 9/11, not only with my children, but their friends as well. I certainly did not want to further traumatize them. It was very difficult for me, so I am very sympathetic to the challenges that face all of you when broaching tragic subjects in the classroom.

I agree with the majority of you who believe it is most challenging to discuss September 11th with elementary school children. They are not old enough to recall the events or were born after the attacks. Naturally, we hesitate because we don’t want to scare them or intensify feelings of fear or trauma. Yet, September 11, wars and natural disasters are a part of life that all of us, even our children, must learn to face and process.

It is crucial to teach difficult topics in a way that doesn’t increase a child’s sense of vulnerability or helplessness.  I’d like to share a letter I wrote to my niece when she was seven years old.  She was born in September 2001 about one week after the attacks. Every year she wonders why there is such sadness in the days and weeks before her birthday. Please feel free to use this story if it helps you with your students in class.  Following the letter are suggestions we hope you will find helpful.

A Letter to Caitlyn:

"You asked your mom why everyone is so sad around your birthday and you wonder why you never got to meet your Uncle Johnnie. I hope I can help you understand.

Before you were born, there were two really big buildings in New York City called the World Trade Center. Some people even called them the Twin Towers. Your Uncle Johnnie worked on the 104th floor of the building, almost at the very top! He worked with bankers and had lots of friends who worked with him.

A week before you were born, a group of men who did not like our country, did a very bad thing. They hijacked airplanes, which means they forced the pilots to let them fly the planes. Instead of landing the planes, they flew the planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, a building called the Pentagon in Washington, and into a field in Pennsylvania. Lots of people were able to get out of the buildings that were hit by the planes and run to safety. But some people did not.

Your Uncle Johnnie could not get out of the building in New York; he worked near the top floors where the plane hit the building. He died that day with lots of his friends who worked with him. Almost 3,000 people died that day, but tens of thousands of people were rescued.

This happened on September 11 in 2001…just a week before you were born. Every year on that day, we all remember your uncle and we all remember how sad that day was when he died. It is an important day, because everyone in America feels sad when they remember that day.

But things have changed since then. Laws changed around the world to make it safer on airplanes and in buildings. People changed and tried to be nicer to each other, and help each other more.

September 11 is a sad day, but it is a day when we remember what happened, and a day we should all try a little harder to make our world a better place. Uncle Johnnie would really like that."

Love,

Aunti Mare

For Young Children: Talking about 9/11 in the classroom 

  • Use language that is simple and factual.
  • Avoid graphic details or dramatizing the destruction.
  • Be accurate and inclusive.

Note that people from many states and countries were affected in addition to New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.   They lived and worked in and near those cities as well as people traveling on the airplanes.

Try not to politicize the event or promote bias.

  • Be positive.
    - The evacuation plan at the World Trade Center was a success. Many, many people got out of the buildings. There were also many people who reached safety at the Pentagon because of the way the building was designed.
    - Talk about safety measures, heroic actions and volunteer efforts following the event.
    - Point out how changes after 9/11 have made our world a safer place: airplane screening and safety drills.

And finally, begin a conversation about how students can help through service projects and individual good deeds. They are not too young to know they can make a difference!