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MONTREAL, SEPTEMBER 17, 2001— The English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) Traumatic Events Support Team, normally in place to deal with problems of a local nature, is making itself available to staff, students and parents who have been directly or indirectly affected by last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States.

"Disaster hits hard," stated EMSB Director General Charley E.E. Levy. "It is difficult to understand and accept that there are events which cannot be controlled or predicted and which are not easily ‘fixed,’ resolved, prevented or even understood."

"Although we have not been directly affected, many of us have connections with family or friends in the United States," Mr. Levy continued. "Many of us have spent hours witnessing this disaster on television, radio or internet and thus we can be considered secondary victims and, as such, can experience trauma/stress reactions."

EMSB Interim Student Services Director Lew Lewis, a psychologist, says "it is important to understand that, following a traumatic event, even if it happened to someone else, it is normal to feel this personally. Although each person reacts differently, according to his/her own personality and life experiences, there is a wide range of normal feelings and reactions that are generated by these horrific events. Those who are particularly vulnerable because of previous experiences of trauma or loss may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder."

In a message sent out to EMSB principals and centre directors, Mr. Levy emphasized the importance for principals to be aware of the common reactions to trauma/stress. He called on them to alert their staff and community as a whole, in order to help them cope with the experience and to understand and to aid those individuals who may be more deeply affected.

The Student Services Department has developed a set of general guidelines, some common stress reactions to trauma and a plan of how to talk to kids about tragedy.

Mr. Lewis, who heads the Traumatic Support Team, has informed principals that if students and/or staff seem to require particular attention they should not hesitate to contact professionals such as social workers, psychologists, guidance counsellors, nurses and spiritual community animators in their school community.

General guidelines include:

  • Take care of yourself. Be aware of your own feelings of fear, anger, helplessness. Until you do this, you will not be able to help others. Children's reactions depend, to a large extent, on how they perceive their caregivers' reactions, as well as on their previous experiences and cognitive development.
  • Be alert to students/staff who may be more vulnerable because of their personal experiences (illness, loss, divorce, violence, death in family).
  • Put the disaster in context; provide a perspective such as "There are terrible things which happen in life, but you are safe now.' Allow for an honest discussion of feelings and provide reassurance. Validate their feelings. Stay away from laying blame. Hate, distrust and lack of tolerance are damaging at any level."
  • Be careful not to project your emotions, theories and interpretations. Take the focus off the tragedy and onto how we can take care of each other and those in the most need.
  • Maintain routines and structure. These approaches represent a source of comfort and an effective method to manage stress.

    In terms of talking to kids about the tragedy, Mr. Lewis points that as much as we try to protect our children from frightening news reports, there is likely no child in America who escaped the horror of seeing or hearing about Tuesday morning's terrorist attacks. "As you struggle to handle your own feelings about this unthinkable tragedy, consider these tips for talking with your children," he says. "How you respond to their fears, feelings, and questions is the key to helping them feel safe again."

    Some advice includes:

    Turn off the TV. Don't let your own desire to keep up with the news get in the way of your children's well-being. Even if your children are very young, the continual commentary, frightening speculation, and repeated replaying of the disasters on TV will only fuel their fears and insecurities, not to mention your own.

    Try to control your response. It matters more than anything. If you're overcome by fear and sadness, your kids, even if they're very young, will pick up on that and it will make them feel even more scared. It's okay to share some of your feelings. You can let them know that you, too, feel sad for the children and families that have been affected. But also share any tips you have for dealing with your feelings: "I just keep reminding myself that my friends and family are safe and that there are lots of police, firemen, and others who are busy trying to protect us."

    Reassure, reassure, reassure. If you're faced with a question you just can't answer, remember that the most important thing you can do for your children is reassure them that you'll do everything you can to keep them and the rest of your family (including yourself) safe. Tell them it's the job of the grown-ups around them to protect him. Assure them that you, their teachers or caregivers, and the other adults around them care about them and will do everything possible to keep them safe. Tell your kids that a lot of people are thinking about safety and working hard to prevent more violence.

    Be available. Let your children ask questions. It may be tempting to say,"Everything is fine. We're far away from the explosions and nothing will happen to us." But that can sound dismissive to your child if you aren't also addressing his specific concerns. The best thing you can do is listen to his questions and continually reassure him. If you're at work during the day, give your child the number and let him call you whenever he's worried about something.

    Ask your children what their biggest fears are, and encourage them to talk about them. If they're having trouble articulating them, consider these common fears after a disaster or tragedy, and try to address them even if your children don't mention them specifically: the event will happen again; someone they care about will be injured or killed; they will be separated from the family; and they will be left alone.

    "Keep in mind, too, that it's also common for children to express concern for people they don't know,"” says Mr. Lewis. "Be supportive of these concerns."

    Play with children who can't talk yet. If you have a child who is too young to ask detailed questions or express his feelings, that doesn't mean he isn't fearful or worried by the atmosphere around him. To help a young child express his feelings, get on the floor and start playing - puppet shows, drawing pictures, and reading books can help small children get those emotions out. If your child draws pictures and then wants to tear them up, that's okay. It's a perfectly natural, physical way to deal with frustration and anxiety.

    Get back to your family routine as soon as possible. Children of all ages thrive on routine. It doesn't make sense to pretend that life is normal if your family has been deeply affected by large events, but the groove of their daily lives - dinner, bath, reading time - can be tremendously reassuring to children. If your children are home from school for one or more days, try to keep them on a weekend schedule of meals, playtime, etc.

    "In the coming days we'll learn more about what's needed," said Mr. Lewis. "It may be food, clothing, or blood donations, or even financial support. Asking your children to gather some old clothes, toys, or food and packaging it up together will give them a sense of helping others that will go a long way toward making them feel better."


    Common stress reactions to trauma include initial reactions such as numbing, detachment, disorientation, anger or fear, physical shock (nausea, perspiration, tremors, uncontrollable crying or laughing). Cognitive and/or emotional reactions include difficulty concentrating, intrusive thoughts, memory lapses, poor judgment, confusion, second guessing, sense of powerlessness and/or injustice and anger. There may be physical reactions and disturbances like gastro-intestinal problems, allergies, skin eruptions, vascular, cardio-vascular and muscular problems and fluctuation in blood pressure. Behavioral reactions might see the student display aggression, irritability, depression or withdrawal, change in libido, sleep patterns and appetite and increased consumption of alcohol, drugs or food.

    Teachers and parents should always look for a change in the individual, severity of reaction and duration of reaction. Symptoms specific to children include distortion of time concerning the incident and/or the sequence of events, the re-enactments of traumatic events, repetitive play involving traumatic themes, pessimistic expectations of the future and lifespan, greater memory of the event than adults and fantasizing changes to 'undo' the event. Behaviours which may be evident in school tend to be dullness, decreased intellectual functioning and school performance; decreased ability to focus and concentrate, decreased spontaneous thought in an effort to decrease intrusive thoughts of traumatic event; focus on imagined actions they wished they had taken; play-acting the role of hero, fantasizing revenge; persistent focus on details of the trauma; trouble with peer relationships; change in personality; decreased trust in adults' ability to protect; and psychosomatic complaints.

    Michael J. Cohen
    Communications and Marketing Specialist
    English Montreal School Board
    Tel: (514) 483-7200 ext. 7243
    Fax: (514) 483-7213