"We Interrupt This Program to Show You a Bombing": Children and Schools Respond to Televised War

Article excerpt

Schools must often prepare for potential crisis situations. Such preparations can include drilling students on what to do in case of fire, tornadoes or earthquakes; determining teachers' and parents' roles during emergencies; forming teams of specialists who can respond readily to crises; and providing supply kits to be used in emergencies. One school district in northern California, for example, requires each child to bring to school an "earthquake kit" - extra clothes, toiletries and food - to be used in the event of an earthquake during school hours. Teachers have specific assigned duties, such as grouping children together, contacting parents and assessing any damage.

Another school district assembled a "Crisis Team," consisting of school counselors, psychologists and social workers, to address the residual fear and tensions after two junior high students committed suicide. This team also helped residents of another district cope when a bus carrying students crashed en route to a football game. Similarly, some urban areas have formed Youth Trauma Teams (Johnson, 1995) to help mitigate the impact on children of continuous neighborhood violence. While the preparations and responses are all worthy efforts, schools have too often ignored a more subtle source of trauma for children. War has a profound effect on children, which is exacerbated by television's graphic portrayal of war's realities.

Seven-year-old Stephanie first made me aware of how televised war affected children. When asked to share her feelings about Operation Desert Storm, Stephanie said, "I feel everything. . . . I feel angry at Saddam Hussein, sad because all of those troops are over there, and happy because it looks like we might win." Stephanie, a black urban child in a classroom for gifted students, could well have been any American child in 1991. Television had brought detailed images of war into 98 percent of American homes. Since then, video footage of war in Haiti, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Russia and Iraq, and of additional bombings on Baghdad, have interrupted television programming of all kinds and for all ages. Even closer to American children's personal realities are news programs depicting the devastating effects of random terrorist bombings in the United States, including the attacks on the World Trade Center and the federal building in Oklahoma City (see p. 226).

What effect does this exposure have on young children who have just begun to be socialized in the values of their community and nation? How do these effects compare with the effects on past generations of American children who grew up during wartime? How can schools better respond to the effect on children of real-life destruction captured on television?

I happened to be videotaping in an urban classroom on the day the United States declared war on Iraq and thus had the opportunity to observe the immediate reactions of one class of gifted 2nd-graders, including Stephanie. Once I noticed the degree of the children's absorption with the war, I decided to expand my observations to other primary-level classrooms. For the duration of Operation Desert Storm, I videotaped and reviewed weekly classroom discussions about the war in six primary-level urban gifted classrooms; analyzed written work of urban 3rd-graders and intermediate rural students; and observed school response activities in four settings: urban, K-6; rural, K-3; rural, 4-6; and university preschool. A comparison of children's spoken and written thoughts, as well as teacher comments, revealed that the war scenes depicted on television were regularly affecting the children. This led me to wonder whether these children's responses to war differed from those of children to untelevised wars. As a result, I began exploring previous studies related to children and war (Baruch, 1943; Coles, 1986; Escalona, 1962; Freud & Burlingham: 1943; Geddie & Hildreth, 1944/45; Rosenblatt, 1983; Tolley, 1973; Wolf, 1942). …