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A New Normal

By John Kelly

Terror strikes … Planes crash … Chaos ensues … Wide-eyed students … Tears in teachers' eyes … Towers collapse … Chaos reigns … “They look to the school psychologist to set the tone during a crisis” … There is a new normal … From crop dusters to anthrax … Are we safe? Will it happen again? The events of September 11, 2001 have become a marker along the timeline of our lives. They have changed the scenery of the American landscape and altered the direction of this generation. No longer can the youth of America live in the comfort that “it can't happen here.” There is a new normal.
Excerpted from NASP School Psychologist of the Year essay, John Kelly, 2002

I must admit, even with 10 years past, it is still difficult for me to watch the images of September 11, 2001. Apart from the initial coverage, I can count the number of times that I have viewed any lengthy clips of the events on one hand. I find myself changing the television channel, flipping the page of the magazine or newspaper, or avoiding any sensationalized movie that recounts the terror attacks. I don't need those pictures to remind me; the images are permanently burned in my memory. Sights, sounds, and conversations that I had are all right there, some as if it happened yesterday. However, my work as a school psychologist changed as a result of September 11, 2001. As with all events in our lives, both good and bad, we have an opportunity to grow and learn from them.

Lessons Learned

The power of hope. In the year after 9/11, I was fortunate to initiate a project with school children and adolescents throughout the Long Island, NY area. The project, entitled “Voices of Our Children: Messages of Hope and Healing,” was designed to give expression to the inner reflections that these young people were experiencing as a result of 9/11 and the ongoing terror threats. The written compositions, pictures, and songs were filled with messages of fear, doubt, and grief. However, a strong theme began to emerge from this material— hope. Hope for the future, hope that would begin the healing process for adults and children alike. It was the voices of these children that reminded me that resilience often comes when you can experience a sense of optimism. The concept of “coping self-efficacy,” or the belief that you can overcome adversity, is central in helping students overcome difficulties in their lives.

The power of connectedness. In the aftermath of 9/11, the sense of unity in our country was at an all-time high. Neighbor helped neighbor, people volunteered for charitable organizations, and our nation's leaders put aside their differences to move together in unison, allowing all of us to feel a part of something greater than ourselves. However, this sense of being connected to others also provided a sense of belonging and acceptance, which warded off feelings of isolation and fear. There is a significant body of research related to the positive effect of “school connectedness” and student adjustment and achievement. Teachers, administrators, and mental health support staff became surrogate parents to the students in school; peers became siblings as we all tried to take care of each other on 9/11. The concept of fostering connectedness in school children is something that needs to be part of our daily routines.

The power of gratitude. Gratitude is about having an awareness of and appreciation for the good things that you have in your life. It is also about sharing this appreciation with others in your life, particularly those near to your heart. By engaging in gratitude activities, we can actually enhance happiness in our lives. In fact, research suggests that gratitude is strongly linked with overall mental wellness. The field of positive psychology has blossomed over the past 10 years and is replete with models on expressing gratitude in our lives. Incorporating these practices with children helps them to develop a sense of empowerment in fostering positive events and relationships in their life. (See NASP's Gratitude Works program online at http://www.nasponline.org/communications/gratitudeworks.)

The power of family and acts of kindness. In the midst of tragedy and crisis, engaging sources of support is vital to psychological survival. In the ensuing days after 9/11, I found myself coming home from school exhausted, both mentally and physically. My family became my refuge, my place to let down my guard, my place to show my emotions that I needed to keep in check while at school.

One day, I found myself mindlessly cutting the grass around my home. I happened upon a small baby bird on the lawn. Looking around, I could not spot a nest or other place that the bird may have come from. I gently placed the bird with a gloved hand in some side bushes and hoped that the mother bird would come along to reclaim the baby. After school the next day, I returned to the spot where I had placed the bird and found that it had not moved. Not wanting to leave the bird to die and knowing that my oldest daughter was an animal lover, I decided to place it in a box and asked if she wanted to care for it. Beginning to molt, this bird was not cute and fluffy. It was, well, ugly. This did not matter to my daughter. She spent the next couple of days researching various ways to feed the bird. She also began to research “wildlife rehabilitators” in our area who took care of abandoned infant animals. My daughter and wife brought the baby bird to one of these rehabilitators. Upon their return home, they shared with the family that the bird was a baby dove, a bird of peace. My daughter had nurtured and saved a bird of peace. It was at that point that my personal healing from 9/11 began. With a tear in my eye, I realized that simple acts of kindness have powerful meaning.

Not all school children have strong, supportive, or intact family environments. However, demonstrating to students that we genuinely care for them, respect them, and yes, even love them (molting feathers and all) can generate an environment that allows their defenses to dissipate and expression of authentic emotions to occur. Finally, this experience demonstrated that we must recognize that we can learn from children, if we allow our eyes to be opened by their actions.

Ten Years After

While my journey to cope with and heal from the tragic events of September 11, 2001 continues to unfold, I find myself striving to find good in difficult events and remain optimistic when challenges confront my personal or professional life. I value the friendships and connections that bless my life. My work with students has become more personal, as I strive to help them feel connected in their lives. I am grateful for these connections and try to help others to appreciate the goodness in their life. Admittedly, this is often difficult, but a worthwhile venture. And yes, at the risk of using a well-worn cliché, it often takes a village to raise a child, and sometimes the school psychologist is a central figure in leading that village.

Ten years after, am I a better school psychologist? I don't know, but I know that I am a different school psychologist and some say that different is better. I'll take that.

John Kelly, PhD, is a school psychologist at Commack High School in Commack, Long Island, NY. He was the NASP 2002 School Psychologist of the Year.