Monday, February 3, 2003

Tragedy will be topic in schools today

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sayler Park Elementary students in Pam Dixon's classes spent last week writing journal entries about the effects of the Challenger explosion. Such an "odd coincidence," Dixon said, that another space shuttle explosion will dominate conversations when her seventh- and eighth-grade reading students return to class today.

"I'll let them talk about it, and what they heard and what their thoughts were on it," the teacher said.

"Everything to them seems to be terrorist-related since 9-11, so I think they'll have a lot of questions."

Teachers across Greater Cincinnati are likely to receive plenty of questions today about Saturday's loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew.

Many educators say they plan on letting children's questions and comments lead class discussions.

Education professionals and child psychologists say it's important to be open with children, who weren't born when the Challenger exploded in 1986 but vividly remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We need to be very honest about what happened - that it's a tragedy and everyone's sad about it, but that there has always been risks in space flight and, as sad as it is, unfortunately, these kinds of things happen," said Dr. James Brush, a child psychologist who has a practice in Monfort Heights.

"But there's a saturation point for kids,'' Brush said. "So most parents and teachers will be giving the information to kids in bits and pieces, and not overwhelming them."

That was the theory for Sylvia Henderson of Corryville, whose 8-year-old grandson, John-Mark Thomas, watched some television coverage of the Columbia disintegration, but not "over and over again."

"When we saw the news, we immediately stopped and prayed for the families," Henderson said.

Anne and Mark Stepaniak also let their two children - 10-year-old Allison and 7-year-old Max - watch the live coverage. The children had only a few questions afterward, including why NASA officials did not check the damaged wing.

"One question (Max) had was why the news had interrupted the cartoon marathon," the Walnut Hills father said. "We had to explain that when American heroes die, that it is important to take time away from cartoons to reflect on it."

Area educators expect even more questions today.

At Westwood Elementary, Principal Laura Mitchell is expecting students, especially those in the older grades, to talk about everything from how the Columbia incident happened to how space shuttles work.

"We try to be sensitive to the children and their concerns and their feelings," Mitchell said. "We'll also try to talk about the incidents in a historical perspective, as well as in terms of current events."

The school psychologist and counselors will be on hand to help the students, who range from preschool through eighth grade.

Besides conversations with teachers and parents, children will take their cues on how to cope by watching how adults are grieving, says Brush, a child psychologist for about 20 years.

"What shakes children up more than a national tragedy is how their parents are reacting to it, so it's important to keep things in perspective," he said. "It will affect everyone, kind of like the death of a prominent figure. It will make several days seem very gray and bleak, but then we'll move on."


(Complete Columbia coverage at

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