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

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

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

The weeks and first few months after a traumatic event can be overwhelming and filled with change. Distress will be at its highest point immediately after the event and should lessen over the following weeks and months for most people.

Children may show distress in this time or they may take some months to show that they are having difficulties. Sometimes, children will act out at school because they may not be able to express their distress at home, especially if they are worried about their parents or siblings who also may be having difficulties.

Supporting the children in your class and at your school can feel daunting after a disaster or traumatic event, especially if you also experienced the event. Educators and schools play a big role in returning the community to a stable routine and it is normal to feel exhausted or ‘snowed under’ at times.

It is important to ask for additional help and support if you continue to feel overwhelmed, unable to cope or distressed at a high level without it lessening over time or if you notice that the children in your care may require some extra support.

It is important during this time to seek out your own support system (even if you think you are doing okay), maintain a flexible routine in the classroom with additional calming and creative learning activities, and to plan ahead for difficult situations.

Supporting children in the classroom and at school

1. Give children at your school or in your class extra time and attention.

This can be very difficult as demands are high on everyone after a traumatic event and you are likely to be managing changes within your own life as well. At the same time, children need attention, support and reassurance to know that they are safe and to give them the best chance of recovering well

2. Understand the unique experience and different needs of each child.

Everyone experiences distressing events differently, even children within the same family. Different factors will influence how a child reacts to a traumatic event, including their personal experience of it, their past experiences, their family history and their family circumstances. Some children may need more support regarding their behaviour in the classroom than others and some will need extra attention and learning support from you.

3. Let children know what is going to happen next.

You can start each day by letting your class or school know what is going to happen that day. Children who have experienced a traumatic event can get nervous about things they don’t know and can need reassurance regarding the day’s events. This is also an opportunity to support the children in your care where they may be challenged by something scheduled in the day (i.e. if you are going to talk about disaster preparation or if there is a fire drill etc.) and ask them for ideas on how they might be able to manage if they feel upset.

4. Answer questions with simple facts.

Children are likely to have questions and concerns about the event. Answer honestly, but without graphic or disturbing details of what happened, and without getting distressed yourself. Older children may need more information than younger children.

5. Accept how children are feeling without judgment.

Let them express how they are feeling and don’t say things like ‘You shouldn’t be sad/angry’, ‘Be brave’ or ‘Don’t be silly’.

6. Be on the lookout for ongoing changes in behaviour.

As weeks and months go past, initial distress will lessen over time, but if things aren’t getting better or are getting worse over this time, you may need to offer additional time and support or let the parents of the child know that they are having difficulty in some areas.

7. Plan ahead for difficult moments and/or days.

It is likely that children will feel anxious or distressed when they are reminded of the event. They may think it is happening again when they hear, see or smell reminders (like smelling smoke or hearing sirens) or watch news coverage of the event. During these times, children may display more extreme distress and some may show new behaviours that haven’t happened before.

8. Give children opportunities to make choices and decisions for themselves in the classroom.

This can help children of all ages regain a feeling of control and empowerment. You can provide different assignment topics for them to choose from or different classroom activities.

9. Set boundaries for good behaviour and be patient, yet firm, if they are not followed.

Children can have a range of responses to a disaster or traumatic event. They may display behaviours for the first time in years, like thumb sucking or wetting their pants. They may also rebel against authority or begin fighting with others. They may not pay attention to you or refuse to follow instructions because trauma impacts a child’s ability to learn.

Over time, you will see these behaviours lessen and eventually fade in the majority of children. Some children will continue to have difficulties and may need additional support in the classroom. However, all children need gentle reminders of what is expected of them and help in achieving these behaviours if they have trouble.

10. Focus on children’s strengths and positive hope for the future.

It is often easier to focus on the ‘naughty’ behaviours a child is showing because they are obvious to see, but children need encouragement and praise about things they are good at or enjoy to help support their recovery.

11. Make sure you access the supports that you need.

As an educator, you too will need extra care in this time and will need to access supports that help you be present for children. This can mean having the time to reflect on what is happening for you with trusted colleagues, senior staff, family and friends. If you are feeling unsupported, it is a lot harder to look after and provide for the children in your care. Make sure to ask for help and support from others if you need it.

Talking about the event

Sometimes people think that talking about a traumatic event with children will upset or traumatise them more, especially if they are already having difficulty managing their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Generally, talking about a traumatic event will not cause children to develop issues. In fact, it can be a helpful and healthy way for them to process their thoughts and feelings about it.

It is more important to consider how you may talk about the event with them, because it is likely that children will have questions about what happened or want to share stories.

Some children will want to talk about the event and others may not. It is important not to pressure them to talk if they don’t want to, but to remind them that you are there to listen if they want to. Be aware of children’s circumstances – some of them may have lost loved ones and may not want to talk or listen to others. Gently encourage them to join in if they want to but give children an opportunity to do something else they enjoy.

Put gentle limits around talking about the event, especially when talking with a group of children. Sometimes, children can get overwhelmed or carried away when talking in a group about a sensitive issue. Say that for the next 10 or 15 minutes there is open time to discuss it and after that, encourage children to draw pictures or write in a journal.

End each discussion with talk about positive things you and they can do for the future.

While it can be helpful to have talking sessions like this, you may need extra support from another teacher or parent who is helping out. Try to schedule the sessions when others are available to help you.

Follow up the discussion with a calming, fun activity, like creative art, reading a story, or a physical activity outside.

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