How educators can support children immediately after a disaster or community trauma

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

How to support children immediately after a disaster or community trauma

The immediate aftermath of a disaster or community trauma can be confusing, difficult and overwhelming for all community members. As an educator, you will know many of the children in your community personally, you may also be a first responder or parent and have different responsibilities pulling you in different directions.

School may go back within days or it may take longer. The event may have also happened during school hours or within the school itself. This can temporarily make the school a frightening place for both children and adults.

Regardless of what happens during the event, there are several principles you can use during and immediately after the event to help reassure children in your care, wherever you are. These principles are called ‘psychological first aid’ (PFA).

Psychological first aid

PFA is based on the most recent evidence on what helps children to recover after a frightening or traumatic event. It is used in the same way physical first aid is used – as a way to assess and protect people who are in an emergency threatening their lives or wellbeing. PFA is an internationally accepted concept and strategy supported by the World Health Organisation, which has developed specific guidelines for use across the world.

PFA for children in a disaster or emergency is based on five important concepts:

The immediate aftermath of a disaster can be overwhelming for all members of a community, but focusing on these fundamental ideas can help give you and the children in your care much needed focus and direction to help support physical and psychological recovery for everyone.

Guidelines for what infants and children need

These guidelines are designed to help children regain a sense of emotional and physical safety, feel protected from the powerful and confronting force of the traumatic event and be comforted and calmed, which gradually brings the episode to a close. This also limits the potential damaging effects of the experience and provides the first steps in the recovery process.

It is important to reunite children with their families as soon as possible after a disaster or traumatic event. Infants and children have an overwhelming need to feel safe in frightening situations. They need to feel the protection, safety and comfort of the most important and familiar people in their lives – parents, extended family, friends and teachers.

Children need to be with their parents/carers once any threat has passed. If this is not possible, try to keep in touch by phone or email. If siblings are at the same school, encourage them to be together while they are waiting for their family. Older siblings will likely feel like they need to protect their younger siblings and may insist on joining their class or that they join theirs.

Keep children safe from scenes of destruction, violence or upsetting stories about the event.

Maintain a calm, non-threatening environment. Speak in a low, calm voice and try to manage your own responses in front of children at your school.

Explain what has happened using clear facts and, if possible, what will happen next. Answer questions and concern with honesty, but without details that may be graphic or frightening for younger children.

When school goes back, return to a familiar routine in the classroom as soon as possible, but be aware that children may not pay attention or be able to concentrate on learning yet.

Ways educators can help

How you can help will depend on whether a disaster or community trauma happens while you are at school, if you are helping in the community or if school has returned; however, there are some things you can do to reassure the children in your care.

Remain calm. If you need a moment away, ask for someone to help look after your responsibilities for a moment and take some time to breathe. Children can also pick up if you are upset or stressed, which can sometimes frighten them more.

Remove yourself and children in your care from sights, smells, sounds and circumstances of the incident as much as possible. Look for a quiet, settled place where there are other people.

Don’t let children be interviewed by the media and try to keep them away from scenes of destruction or violence. Try to keep them away from other distressed adults and other people talking about what happened.

Tell children they are safe (when this is the case). Tell them that they have you and other adults looking out for them and that they will be with their families soon.

Be mindful of children’s needs and reactions and be responsive to them. Reassure the child that their reactions are normal and will pass in time.

Be gentle and accept all responses. Don’t tell them to ‘be good’, ‘stop being silly’ or to ‘be brave’.

Remember that most children will need time for their natural resilience to emerge and develop, but will need addition support, care and sensitivity from adults to help this process along.

It is likely that children will not be able to concentrate on learning after a disaster or community trauma. Focus instead on calming and/or creative activities, like having story time, singing songs, listening to music or quiet conversation together.

Make sure you look after your own safety and wellbeing. You cannot help the children in your care without you being OK.

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