A National Tragedy: Promoting Tolerance and Peace in Children
Tips for Parents and Schools

From the National Association of School Psychologists

A natural reaction to horrific acts of violence like the recent terrorist attacks on the United States is the desire to lash out and punish the perpetrators.  People who are angry or frightened often feel that the ability to "fight back" puts them more in control or will alleviate their sense of pain.  While anger is a normal response felt by many, we must ensure that we do not compound an already great tragedy and react against innocent individuals with vengeance and intolerance.  There is a tremendous risk of unfairly stigmatizing people - in this country and around the world - who may look like "our perceived enemies," if we do not temper emotions. 

Children, in particular, may have difficulty channeling their feelings appropriately and can easily pick up negative or demeaning cues given by adults around them.  Given the diversity of Americaís schools, some students may become targets of hostility and blame. Bullying and harassment are never acceptable but they can be especially damaging at this critical time in our nationís history. Parents and school personnel need to be prepared to quickly and effectively prevent and stop abusive behaviors that are directed toward any students, although Arab-Americans and individuals of Islamic faith are most at risk.

Adults can help children understand the importance of treating all people with dignity and not judging groups of people for the actions of a few.  Most importantly, adults must model tolerance and compassion in their words and behavior.  They should also encourage children to explore their feelings about prejudice and hate.  Doing so is not only critical to preventing further harm, but the process presents a potentially powerful, albeit painful, opportunity for our young people to learn and incorporate into their values the true strength of our country - our commitment to individual freedom and upholding the respect and dignity of all people. 

Key Messages

  1. Violence and hate are never solutions to anger.  The terrorists caused tremendous harm because they acted violently against innocent people out of blind hate.  We must not act like them by lashing out at innocent people around us, or "hating" them because of their origins. 
  1. Groups of people should not be judged by the actions of a few.  It is wrong to condemn an entire group of people by association of religion, race, homeland, or even proximity.  No one likes to be blamed or threatened for the actions of others.
  1. America is strong because of our diversity.  Known as the great "melting-pot" of the world, American democracy is founded on respect for individual differences.  Those differences in culture, religion, ideas, and ethnicity have contributed to the the strength and richness of our country.
  1. All people deserve to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity.  Certainly individuals that are proven to be guilty of a crime should be punished.  No matter how angry we are over these terrible crimes, our Constitution ensures fair and equitable treatment under the law for all Americans. 
  1. Vengeance and justice are not necessarily the same.  Everyone wants the terrorists punished.  Our government is working to identify who they are and how we will bring them to justice.  Justice means punishing the real perpetrators, not innocent people.  Hurting our classmates and neighbors will not make us safer, stop the real terrorists, or help punish them. It will only add to the hate and anger, increasing the risk of further violence.
  1. We are in this together.  People of all ethnicities were hurt by these attacks and all Americans are saddened by the senseless violence.  We need to support each other, comfort each other, and work together to help those most in need during this difficult time.
  1. History shows us that intolerance only causes harm. Some of our countryís darkest moments resulted from prejudice and intolerance for our own people because Americans acted out of fear.  We must not repeat terrible mistakes such as our treatment of Japanese Americans and Arab Americans during times of war.
  1. We need to work for peace in our communities and around the world.  The best way that we can stand up for our country at this point is to unite behind the principles that make us strong.  By reaching out to our classmates, friends, and neighbors of all ethnicities, we can help heal the wounds from these events, build stronger, more resilient communities at home, and show the world that American values will endure now and forever. 
  1. Tolerance is a lifelong endeavor.  Protecting against harassment of our Arab American classmates and neighbors is most critical right now.  But the issues of tolerance and inclusion go beyond this period in our national life together.  We must embrace these values towards all Americans for all time.  This includes race, religions, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and those with special needs.

  Tips for Parents and Teachers

  1. Model tolerance and compassion. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid making negative statements about any racial, ethnic, or religious group at these very tense and troubling times in our childrenís lives.  Reach out to your neighbors and colleagues who might feel at risk right now because of their ethnicity.
  1. Provide useful information. Accurate information about the people, events, reactions, and feelings is empowering. Use language that is developmentally appropriate for children. Make sure that all information is factually true. This is especially important when news reports have negative statements about Arab-Americans or any other ethnic group.
  1. Avoid stereotyping people or countries that might be home to the terrorists. Children can easily generalize negative statements to students in their classes and community. Focusing on the nationality of the terrorists can create prejudice, anger, and mistrust for their group members.  Be clear about your statements and biases, and help children understand their own prejudices.
  1. Address the issue of blame factually.  Explore who and what may be to blame for this event. Use non-speculative terms.  Do not suggest any group is responsible.  Do not repeat the speculations of others, including newscasters.  Do not encourage or allow random blaming; but understand that self-blame may be a way for students to feel "in control" (something different they "could have done" or "could do" in the future). Be careful to ensure students, (e.g., Arab-American students,) do not assume blame in order to make classmates feel better. Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. However, explain that all Arab-Americans are not guilty by association or racial membership. Help kids resist the tendency to want to "pin the blame" on someone close by. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise. Further, we have no reason to believe that the attacks on our country were part of an organized plan of any other country. The terrorists acted independently without the sanctions of any nation.
  1. Discuss how it would feel to be blamed unfairly by association.  Ask children if they have ever gotten in trouble for something a sibling or friend did and how they felt.  Would they like it if their entire class were punished for the actions of one student and if they think this would be fair? Older children might want to consider what would have happened if all white American males had been condemned for the Oklahoma City bombing.
  1. Explore childrenís fears. Even children who can describe what happened may not be able to express fears, questions, or describe assumptions or conclusions they may have made.  Use activities, role-playing, and discussions to explore their fears about the events and their feelings about various ethnic groups.
  1. Emphasize positive, familiar images of diverse ethnic groups.  Identify people of diverse ethnicities that your children know and who have a positive place in their lives. These could be neighbors, friends, school personnel, health care professionals, members of their faith community, or local merchants.  Discuss the many characteristics, values, and experiences the children have in common with these people.
  1. Identify "heroes" of varying backgrounds involved in response to the attacks.  These include firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, military personnel, public officials, medical workers, construction crews, engineers, and regular citizens who are volunteering their time, perhaps even risking their lives, to help victims of the attacks and restore the country to normalcy. 
  1. Undertake projects to help those in need with people from diverse backgrounds.  Helping others is part of the healing process.  Working with classmates or members of the community who come from different backgrounds not only enables children to feel that they are making a positive contribution, it also reinforces their sense of commonality with diverse people.
  1. Discuss historical instances of American intolerance.  Internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Arab Americans during the Gulf War are obvious examples.  Teachers can do lessons in class, but parents can also discuss the consequences of these events and encourage their children to suggest better choices that Americans can make this time.
  1. Learn about the diverse communities and faiths represented in your area.  Knowledge debunks myths about other people and can humanize other cultures.  In school, have children share information about their family or cultural customs to reinforce the notion that all people have special beliefs and rituals.
  1. Read books with your children that address prejudice, tolerance, and hate.  There are many, many stories appropriate for varying age groups that can help children think about and define their feelings regarding these issues.  The school or local librarian can make recommendations. 

Additional Tips for Schools

  1. Provide parents with information.  Send home materials on class lessons, book titles, resources for further information, and opportunities to help.  Enlist support from parents to prevent  "teasing, bullying or abuse" of any students.
  1. Train all school personnel.  Every school professional should be trained to model tolerance and intervene immediately if a child is being bullied.  This includes bus drivers, lunchroom and playground monitors, after school program leaders, coaches and extracurricular activities directors. 
  1. Share information with community groups.  Provide talking points, information, and intervention strategies to local community organizations dealing with children.  This can include local libraries, youth programs, recreational facilities, and the media
  2.  For further information on promoting tolerance among children and youth, contact NASP at (301) 657-0270 or visit NASPís website at www.nasponline.org.

[Editor'snote: The NASP website will be adding and updating information as the days go by.  Please revisit whenever necessary.

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