The Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth Project

The focus of this videotape is to assist teachers and staff as they deal with the one-year milestone following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The emphasis is not on how to plan or commemorate the day but to describe what can be expected among students and members of the school community. There will also be discussion of personal responses. This brief 25-minute videotape (see ordering information below) accompanies the guide already posted on this website. The videotape begins with an introduction by Christopher Kosseff, the President and CEO of University Behavioral Health Care at UMDNJ and the actress Mariette Hartley, who is also an advocate for bereaved families. Donna Gaffney, DNSc; Mary Ann Cernak, PhD and Steve Crimando, MS will discuss the salient points regarding responses to commemorations of traumatic events and loss, common and expected personal reactions and how to effectively anticipate and prepare for the experience. Finally, Mary Ellen Salamone, Chairperson of the Children of September 11, will offer a message for school staff from the Families of September 11th. The following written materials will expand on the video content and include references and a resource list. For more information or to get in touch with the Traumatic Loss Coalition Coordinator in your county, call 732-235-2810.



A Guide for Schools



FadÓ Pictures
Box 300, Summit, NJ 07901

The cost of the videotape and mailing is $10.00

The focus of this guide is to assist teachers and staff as they approach one year since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We will focus on the many possible responses/reactions of students, parents and all members of the school community and suggest some interventions.

  1. Normal reactions to stressful events:
  • No reaction - not everyone will react at the one-year mark.
  • Not all reactions will be the same.
  • Children may seem alone and isolated.
  • May appear sad or angry.
  • May be angry or aggressive and start fights or arguments.
  • Older teens may sense a loss of meaning in life and/or feelings of despair.
  1. Some more normal but intense common reactions to trauma that children may experience might include:
  • PHYSICAL - Sleep difficulties, stomach upset, racing heart and muscle tension.
  • EMOTIONAL - Fear, worry, helplessness and sadness.
  • COGNITIVE - They may lose the ability to focus and have difficulty concentrating. Thus school difficulties may occur.

Adolescents may question the causes and meaning of the terrorist attacks, sometimes in philosophical debate and other times with anger and fear.



  1. The families of 9/11 have asked that we not use the word "ANNIVERSARY" (Since this is most often associated with a happy occasion, i.e., marriage). Alternative suggestions:
  • Commemoration
  • One-year mark
  • Remembrance
  • Day of remembering
  1. Keep the classroom a safe and comfortable place, i.e., a sanctuary.
  • Use normal ‘autumn’ and ‘back to school’ decorations on bulletin boards.
  • Place 9/11 poems or stories in one corner of the classroom, i.e., a place of honor.
  • Provide opportunities for students to do something "positive," i.e., a school or community project.
  • Engage in creative activities that encourage and support.
  • If students react, normalize the experience for them, i.e., we are all remembering things that happened last year and sometimes remembering makes us feel sad and angry but that's OK.


It is not unusual for some children and teens to experience up to several of these reactions for a short time after a traumatic event. However, other youth who may have been more significantly impacted by the traumatic event or may have been more vulnerable for other reasons-may have trouble with day-to-day functioning.

These children may experience behaviors in which:

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced through:

  • Repetitive play acting out the terrorist attacks or falling buildings
  • Daydreaming about the attacks
  • Intense emotional distress with mention of the terrorist attacks
  • Intense reactions to reminders that symbolize or resemble the attacks

There is persistent avoidance of the trauma:

  • Inability to enjoy or feel happiness with peers or in the classroom
  • Deliberate efforts to avoid any discussion or thinking about the trauma
  • Withdrawing from their usual group of friends
  • Refusing to talk about their feelings
  • Not caring about the future, because "it doesn’t matter"

There are signs of increased stimulation or arousal:

  • Acting out and getting into trouble
  • Taking excessive risks or engaging in dangerous activities
  • Confrontations and arguments at school
  • Always talking about or looking out for danger (attacks)
  • Exaggerated reactions to loud noises

Parents, teachers, and counselors are important monitors of children's coping and healing. However, children may not readily share how they are handling things with adults.

By encouraging talking you keep the lines of communication open by being:

  • Available and accessible
  • Honest
  • Supportive and non-judgmental

As keen observers of children's behaviors, we are able to recognize children in the greatest need.

In situations where problems are more severe or they persist past several months, it is important that the youth be referred for an evaluation to determine if this is a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can then provide more intensive interventions and services that will help them recover, integrating the trauma and loss into their lives in a growth promoting way.


In order to help our students, we must help ourselves first. We can learn to take care of ourselves and prevent Compassion Fatigue, i.e., the "cost of caring too much." It is something that happens within us. It is our reaction to the sometimes very sad, graphic or disturbing thoughts and feelings (emotional material) others share with us: in our roles as teachers, school administrators, counselors, and in general, as caregivers.

Compassion Fatigue is also known as "Secondary Traumatic Stress". Just like "second-hand smoke" we can get sick being in the smoky environment.

In the case of Secondary Traumatic Stress:

  • You are not the traumatized individual.
  • But by intense exposure to the traumatic stories others share with you,
  • You may be at risk of a traumatic stress reaction yourself.

If you (listen to or even learn about) or (put yourself emotionally in touch with) the pain and horror others have experienced, it is not unlikely to have a reaction to those experiences yourself. Teachers, counselors, teacher aides, school nurses and others who provide support for students can be at risk for Compassion Fatigue:

Warning Signs:

  • Tension and preoccupation with the individual or cumulative trauma of the students or clients they assist. This can be experienced in one or more ways:
  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event as related by the student.
  • Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event.
  • Persistent arousal and anxiety thinking about the traumatic event.

Like those traumatized, you may feel the same kind of powerful, but normal reactions. These reactions can get in the way of really being able to effectively help your students.

For those of us living in the New York metropolitan area, we also have to cope with our own traumatic experiences in addition to those of our students and colleagues. In fact, we can be both victim and caregiver.

Several steps can be taken to reduce the risk of Compassion Fatigue. For example:

  1. Never work alone.
  2. Make sure you talk about your work with students who have experienced a traumatic event with colleagues, supervisors or crisis team members.

  3. Get together soon after an event or intervention with students to process what has happened.
  4. Make sure everyone, as well as the students, has a chance to ventilate their feelings and thoughts, and receive support from others.
  5. And learn to recognize the warning signs of Compassion Fatigue in yourself and your colleagues.
  6. If these warning signs are present, it is important to disengage, and not to expose yourself to any more traumatic material until your own reaction subsides.

If you find that you, or a colleague, are already suffering from the effects of Compassion Fatigue, some intensified self-care is usually the best course of action.

  1. It is a time to shift your focus away from what is best for the students, to what is best for you.
  2. Eat a healthy diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Get enough sleep
  5. And practice some serious relaxation

And not just "crashing" on the couch!

Serious deep relaxation is:

  1. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and other means of calming and centering yourself before moving back into the classroom.


Compassion Fatigue is not a disease, but it can disable us. Students and their families have benefited greatly from the caring and compassion you offered after September 11. But to best help others, sometimes we must fight our own intuition and take care of ourselves first. Take the time now, as we approach the one-year milestone. Think about how you will take care of yourself, and help others to do the same.


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