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Resilience and Capacity Building: Seeds From 9/11

By Kathy C. Cowan & Susan Gorin

Ten years can flash by in a blink or they can stretch arduously across the landscape of a generation. For most of us, the decade since September 11, 2001 has done both. It is hard to feel distance from a day to which you can return almost viscerally simply by hearing a fighter jet overhead or looking at a cloudless blue sky. The place and time, the images and emotions, are so clear they feel like yesterday.

In reality, the country has labored through our longest period of war in history, major crises, and a seemingly endless cycle of bad news. Our “new normal” has us living much closer to the edge of risk in a world much smaller and more volatile than at any point in our lifetime. Stress is a constant low hum for many and a crushing force for others. What started as a moment of national unity in crisis has fractured to a point of national divisiveness seldom seen since the Civil War. A reflection of all this, our political systems are floundering dangerously under the strains of costly, complex problems and entrenched viewpoints.

Yet against this trying landscape, the American people have demonstrated amazing resilience. Individuals and whole communities alike have learned to cope with less, save more, move on from loss, and generally reach out and help others in need. An entire generation of young people has grown into adulthood with a stronger sense of service at home and abroad, whether it's joining the military or mowing an elderly neighbor's lawn. Home grown charities have sprouted up across the country, many focused on supporting our troops and their families, and those most severely affected by natural disasters and the economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 62.9 million people volunteered for or through an organization last year, a number fairly consistent over the past 5 years. Charitable giving hovered at $290.89 billion in 2010, a 37% increase from giving levels in 2001 (Giving USA, 2011).

Equally important, we have come to recognize publicly the significant mental health consequences of crisis and trauma. For the first time, the President of the United States has begun writing letters of condolence to families of soldiers who die by suicide, just as has always been done for families whose loved ones die in combat. President Obama's decision is part of a growing effort to bring mental health prevention and intervention out of the shadows and highlight critical support services and systems—systems that more and more commonly include schools. Indeed, schools have emerged as a central source of stability and support for students, staff, and their families in the midst of a crisis. While nowhere near universal, progress toward meeting these needs is encouraging.

This is the very nature of crisis. The instantaneous and indelible followed by what is often a long and demanding journey of recovery shaped by uncertainty, connectedness, adaptability, capacity building, and optimism.

The journey for NASP has followed this path in many respects. Those 72 hours after the first plane hit the towers were at once frenetic and intensely focused. We had a crisis response process in place through the NEAT team's work primarily responding to mass school shootings. Up to that point, response efforts focused largely on phone consultation with and direct support on the ground for the affected school community, as well as doing media interviews. September 11 was different. The national education community turned to NASP that Tuesday looking for guidance, waiting to release their recommendations on how to respond until we did. This wasn't one school and a passing wave of media attention. This was every school. The entire country was involved. We as individuals were involved. This was not just shocking and heartbreaking; it was frightening.

The initial sets of guidelines released in those first few days set in motion a national, multifaceted response. We each had our roles, which was incredibly helpful even as those roles evolved day-by-day. From a personal standpoint, having something focused to do was also helpful. We had to concentrate on the tasks at hand rather than be swept up in the swirl of media coverage and evolving information. Our sense of purpose was an important counterbalance to a sense of powerlessness in the face of such tremendous uncertainty, outrage, and sorrow. Additionally, the many connections and broad reach of the school psychology community became crystal clear as messages of support, from diverse sectors ranging from the faith to the business communities, poured in from around the country and the world.

What we couldn't see at the time was the effect that 9/11 would have on a number of NASP priorities. Looking back, it is easy to see some of the seeds planted then that have become integral to our work today.

Being a public resource. Where pre-9/11 crisis response focused on direct “one-toone” support from the NEAT team to a school team, necessity required us to put strategies into the hands of school psychologists, educators, and parents at the local level on a broad scale. The materials had to be user friendly and appropriately targeted to a variety of user audiences. Every large-scale response since then, from the Afghan and Iraq wars, to Katrina to SARS, to Virginia Tech to the Japan earthquake, has followed and built on this premise: putting useful information into the hands of parents and professionals as easily and quickly as possible and at no cost. We also expanded and enhanced the public resources on noncrisis topics which we had recently started providing through the thenfledgling online NASP Center for Children and Families. The only thing that has done more to improve recognition of school psychology's value than providing this public service is the good work of school psychologists at the local and state levels.

Building capacity at the local level. September 11 made clear in a way that previous tragedies had not that any and all schools could find themselves in crisis, and that school psychologists had an important role in responding. This generated an identifiable need that NASP has worked hard to meet by expanding beyond direct support and information sharing to training and capacity building at the district level. While the seedlings of the PREPaRE curriculum came from independent work of the original authors, the fertile ground in which it grew came from NASP's post-9/11 mindset and the commitment of NASP leaders to equip all school psychologists to help develop and serve on comprehensive school crisis teams. Today, PREPaRE is a premier NASP program that not only improves schools' crisis response capacity but also helps put school psychologists in a school-wide leadership role that also encompasses mental health and school safety.

Broadening our voice in policy. Starting shortly after 9/11, NASP has consistently participated in Congressional hearings, legislation advocacy, and national coalitions related to children and disaster. This more visible presence has helped reinforce our work around school safety, violence prevention, and children's mental health. Here, too, the PREPaRE curriculum has added a useful construct for demonstrating to policy makers how schools can effectively meet the crisis needs of students and staff. Many aspects of NASP's work and leadership contribute to NASP's effectiveness in shaping policy. However, 9/11 gave us a platform everyone understood and an opening to convey how school psychologists' skills and expertise—so central to the success of students with special needs—are effective for all students.

Responding to cultural and linguistic diversity. Fairfax County Public Schools, VA partnered with NASP to translate a number of the guidelines into six languages within days of the attacks. These were among the first resources posted on NASP's website in a language other than English. Since then, we have made translating crisis resources a part of most major crisis response efforts, often collaborating with volunteer bilingual school psychologists. This also spurred a growing collaboration between the NEAT team and the Multicultural Affairs Committee (MAC), members of which have been instrumental in providing volunteer translators and reviewers. The MAC's role in this regard has expanded to reviewing translations of NASP publications and contributing to communications columns, among many other initiatives. This by no means equates to all of the work being done to build cultural awareness and competence in practice, but it is one important and visible piece.

These are only a few of the more obvious examples of NASP's current capacities with direct connections to 9/11. Others with clear markers from that experience and the resulting decade include more nimble communications and response to urgent issues (like the MLA); better integrated staff–leader work; deeper connections to our international colleagues and organizations (like the Japan Association of School Psychologists); a growing focus on the needs of military children and other vulnerable students in transition; and a more integral, robust emphasis on the school's role in supporting children's natural resilience and coping (long known in psychology and reinforced by post-9/11 research).

Might we have moved in this direction without 9/11? Perhaps, at least in part, as none of this growth occurred in a vacuum. But it is hard to imagine this exact path without the forces put in play by the attacks. What strikes us is the consistency of NASP's experience with the process of recovery. We tapped and built on existing strengths. We relied on and reinforced our natural support systems (members, leaders, and colleague organizations). We developed new skills and capacities. And, throughout this difficult decade, we have remained confident that NASP will continue to be a valuable resource for school psychologists and a vital force on behalf of children, families, and schools.


Giving USA, a publication of Giving USA Foundation ™, researched and written by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 2011 (http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/news/2011/06/pr-GUSA.aspx)

Volunteering in the United States, 2010. U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/

Katherine C. Cowan is Director of Communications and Susan Gorin is Executive Director of NASP.