How educators can prepare their students for a natural disaster

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

How educators can prepare their students for a natural disaster

Australia is affected by many different types of disaster, including floods, bushfires and cyclones. Preparing yourself and your classroom ahead of time can really make a big difference to how you and your students respond and cope if there is a disaster.

Preparedness is important and helps you and your students to work together to get ready practically and emotionally for a potential disaster. This can increase your confidence and ability to deal with a disaster, think more clearly and act according to the school’s emergency plan.

One of the most important ways you can minimise a child’s stress and anxiety in an emergency situation is through coping well yourself. The skills that educators have are what students need to help them regroup, recover and make the best of the opportunities that come their way.

The work you do with your students will help them in their response to the challenges of a disaster or trauma event and, as always, we can continue to help children develop resilience in the way we teach, interact with and model positive behaviour to our students.

Practical and psychological strategies

You can start to prepare yourself and your classroom for a possible disaster by using both practical and psychological strategies. Psychological and physical preparation are closely linked and both are important.

Practical preparation:

  • Know your school’s emergency and evacuation plan.
  • Know emergency contacts and keeping them somewhere that’s easy to find.
  • Know where, how and when to get help.
  • Know where you can get up to date reliable information about the disaster.
  • Gather facts and information about the threat.
  • Access critical information about warnings and actions to take.
  • Discuss your school’s emergency plan regularly with your students and keep it somewhere everyone can see.
  • Practice emergency drills and evacuations in your school and have a discussion with your students before and after. This will help to set expectations of what will happen and remind students that you are prepared and know what to do.

Psychological preparation:

  • Know your school emergency plan and what to do ahead of time.
  • Know about the risks and what you can do – this will help you to deal with disasters more effectively should they occur and if children need to remain in the school.
  • Prepare yourself psychologically so that you feel more in control and are aware of what to expect.
  • Know that feeling worried and stressed is normal, that you can manage the stress and fear by learning how to identify feelings, bodily responses and thoughts, and
  • having coping statements like, ‘I can cope with this, we know what to do’.
  • Learn breathing exercises to slow down breathing and keep calm.
  • Help your students to identify and label their feelings. Teach them how to slow their breathing and calm down to help manage panic and overwhelming feelings.
  • Listen to students’ concerns and check in with any misperceptions or ideas and correct them.
  • Know that if a disaster occurs children will be worried about themselves, their separation from their parents, carers or pets and will need reassurance. Prepare in advance statements that engender understanding and support.

The High Five Model of Psychosocial Preparedness

This is a strategy that can help you to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

Talking to your students

Lots of people think that if they talk to children about the potential threat of a disaster then they will scare or traumatise them. In fact, talking to them openly and honestly, and letting them know that you are prepared and have a plan, helps them to feel safer and more secure. This will also help them to deal with the impact of a disaster if it does happen.

How to talk about disaster preparedness

Tell students that disasters can happen and being prepared will help everyone keep safe.

It’s important for educators to stay calm and speak with confidence when discussing the school emergency plan, as this will help to reduce your students’ worries.

Allow students to ask any questions or make comments they may have about disaster preparedness. This will help you to understand what needs clarification and to dispel any misconceptions they may have.

Don’t catastrophise or over-dramatise. Assure children that with preparedness, things will be less scary and a lot safer.

Children may want to go over the ideas more than once. Follow their lead, let them speak about it or ask more questions and check in if they are worried about something happening soon. If they are worried, let them know this is normal. Show acceptance of their feelings but let them know that you are not worried about anything happening yourself and your planning will help if it does.

Involve students in disaster preparedness

There are benefits with involving students in disaster preparedness.

Students will:

  • feel more able to deal with the threat, and feel safe and secure in knowing that you have a plan
  • be informed, educated and prepared no matter whether they are at home or at school
  • know that even if it is affected by a disaster, the class will use its resources to work together.

You may be lucky and never be affected by a disaster; however, if you are affected and you are prepared, the physical and psychological outcomes for you and your students are likely to be much more positive.

See more: 

Helping students recover after trauma: Classroom activities

Trauma sensitive behaviour management

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For more information about emergency preparedness:

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