How educators can support children in the longer term following a disaster or community trauma

Emerging Minds, Australia

How to support children in the longer term following a disaster or community trauma

Children require support in the months (and sometimes even years) after a disaster or traumatic event. While most children recover over time, some continue to experience ongoing difficulties.

Recovery doesn’t follow a predictable path or equate to returning back to the life you had before the event, because people and communities adapt to a ‘new normal’ instead. Recovery also doesn’t mean difficult feelings like sadness, anger or guilt go away, but more that they get easier to manage over time with positive coping strategies, additional support from others, and a positive view of the future.

Schools play a large and important role in managing children’s long-term stress after a disaster. Programs and interventions focusing on children’s disaster education and managing post-disaster stress can be very effective within the school environment. They can help teach positive coping strategies and can help build a sense of normality. Educators can also help children recover and manage long-term distress within class.

The way you interact with your students is an opportunity to normalise what is happening for them and help children to manage in the aftermath of a disaster or community trauma. You may have already spent time teaching your class about resilience and the aftermath of a traumatic event is an opportunity to support children’s resilience and recovery process.

While some children who are noticeable distressed improve with time, others do not and for some children, their distress can increase over time. It’s hard to predict what will happen for each individual child, but there are some steps you can take to support each child’s recovery, minimise the risk of ongoing difficulties and connect them to the supports they need.

How to help the children you know

No one list will cover everything you can or will do to help children you know, but the following list is a start if you are not sure what to do next or if you are doing the right thing.

1. You already know how to be a good teacher. The best thing you can do is keep doing that.
After a traumatic event, children need the reassurance of routine and support from adults. They may be anxious if they don’t know what is happening that day, so you can help by starting each day by telling the class what is happening.

2. Keep an open dialogue about the event and check in with children at your school to see how they are feeling.
Be open to questions, concerns and conversation about both the event and how children are feeling. Answer questions with honesty and facts, but without too much detail or emotion. Not speaking about what happened doesn’t mean that the children you know won’t be thinking about it. Younger children may find it easier to draw pictures about what they are feeling, while older children may find writing in a journal helpful.

3. Accept how the children in your care are feeling.
Don’t say ‘you shouldn’t be feeling like that’, ‘you should feel lucky that you were safe’, or things like ‘chin up’, ‘be brave’ or ‘stop being silly’.

4. Monitor children over time for signs of trauma, grief and loss.
You are in a unique position to observe the effects of trauma and child development over time. Most children will be fine as the weeks and months go on, but a small minority will continue to have difficulties. It can be useful to have a ‘buddy system’ for younger children to help support each other or a ‘relaxation space’ away from others that older children can go to when they are very distressed or upset.

5. Don’t expect perfection in yourself or the children at your school.
If things have gone badly, if you have broken down or lost your temper, that is okay. Speak to the children in your care afterwards, apologise if necessary, and reassure them that they are safe and everything is ok.

6. Trauma impacts children’s ability to concentrate and learn, so it may be difficult for some children to pay attention in class or take in new information.
It may be useful to schedule lessons in 15 or 30 minute blocks, with short games, creative play or physical activity (like 10 star jumps or jumping on the spot for 30 seconds) in between.

7. Remember that the event may still be affecting children for years after the event.
They may act out, refuse to speak or follow orders or not pay attention to you. This may be an indication of distress. It is important to explore why this may be happening and think about what is happening for the child.

If a child is misbehaving, instead of punishment, you can gently repeat the behaviours that are expected of them and help them achieve this. For example, if a child refuses to complete their homework, they can stay in with the teacher or a helper at lunchtime to go through the problems.

8. Maintain ongoing dialogue with the parents of children at your school. Reassure them that their child is going ok or let them know if their child is still having difficulties and what they are.
Some children who are challenged in one area (like paying attention in class) might be fine in other areas (able to have fun and play with others).

9. Some days will be harder than others, especially if it is close to an anniversary of the event or if something happens that reminds you or the children at school of what happened.
For help on managing anniversaries and other triggers, see Managing anniversaries and other triggers. On days like these, you may need to be flexible about your schedule. Children may find it hard to focus or be distracted very easily. Some children may also become very distressed and cry or throw tantrums. You also may need extra support from other educators or a parent to help out in the classroom.

10. Above all else, it is important to have and encourage in others a sense of hope about the future.
Focus on children’s strengths and the things they are doing well, and praise them. You can also praise them when you see them managing and/or overcoming difficult moments or emotions, by saying things like ‘I saw you get angry just then and I noticed that you took a moment to breathe instead. I’m very proud that you did that.’

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