What educators can expect during and immediately after a disaster or community trauma

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

Resource Summary

Key points

  • Children and adults are vulnerable to trauma.
  • Reactions will be at their most intense in the first few weeks after a traumatic event.
  • Providing safety and support through understanding and patience are key needs for children in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
  • In whatever ways are feasible, return to routine and predictability as soon as possible.
  • Parents may also be dealing with their own experiences of the event, and will need increased support to provide stability and routine for their children.

All children need stable and supportive environments to grow and develop, and a disaster or traumatic event can disrupt that stability. When a disaster or traumatic event occurs, children can be most distressed by the realisation that the world is not as safe as they thought. Therefore, it is important for their parents, schools and community to provide as much stability and support in a child’s daily life as possible.

Even infants, toddlers and very young children can be affected by traumatic events. Regardless of how young they are, children’s social and emotional wellbeing is affected by the stress happening around them. Their ability to learn new things and listen to you in the classroom will also be affected.

What can I expect to happen in this time?

Often many different things compete for your attention; you may feel responsible for your class’s wellbeing but you still need to make sure you and your family are okay. It is important in this time not to spread yourself too thinly, because looking after yourself means you are better able to look after others.

Educators are in a unique position to help monitor their students over time and observe their recovery. Sometimes a child will not show that they are upset or distressed at home because their parents are also being challenged. You can help them identify their needs and activate supports that will help their families.

It is important to remember that it is normal to have some type of difficulty after experiencing a significant or traumatic event.

The first few days and weeks afterward can be overwhelming because they are filled with upheaval and change. You may feel conflicted about your role or what you should be doing to help; you are an educator but also a community member, parent, friend or first responder. It is challenging to have these different parts of your life overlap after a traumatic event – try and prioritise your roles and not over-commit yourself.

Reactions immediately after a traumatic event are intense and usually their worst during the first few weeks. For most people, these feelings fade over time, though they may come and go for a much longer period, and also return when you are reminded of the event.

What feelings might come up for me or the children I know?

The feelings you or the children you look after experience is dependent upon many factors. The type and proximity of your exposure to the event, for example. Whether there was time to prepare, or not because it was sudden, and how long the event went on for. The extent to which you were in danger, if you lost loved ones, and how you reacted at the time, will also influence your feelings and those of children during and after the event.

Both adults and children often feel:

  • intense emotions, that can change rapidly from fear, to anger, to sadness
  • overwhelmed
  • unsure what to do next
  • worried, anxious or frightened
  • despair or hopelessness
  • burdened by responsibility
  • angry, sad or numb.

As well as these feelings after a disaster people often experience:

  • intrusive thoughts and memories, such as worrying or negative thoughts or images that won’t go away
  • flashbacks (like a short nightmare that happens when you are awake) or nightmares about the event that make you feel like it is happening all over again.

These feelings can be frightening for both adults and children, but they are actually a natural response to having experienced an overwhelming event. Your brain is trying to make sense of what you have been through and ‘process’ these frightening memories. Experiencing this is normal and does not mean that you or the children in your class will experience ongoing problems.

For the majority of people, things like bad dreams and flashbacks will naturally reduce and go away over time. However, if they persist for months after the event or become worse over time, it is important to seek support from your GP or local services.

Considering a child’s reaction

There are two core experiences that children who experience a disaster share:

  1. the experience of the disaster itself
  2. the changes and challenges to everyday life that is caused by the disaster.

The challenges that occur in everyday life after a disaster are often referred to as ‘secondary adversities’. The way in which a family, community or school copes with the aftermath of the event can influence how a child copes over the longer term.

Different children will have different ways of dealing with the ‘big’ feelings they experience. Things like their beliefs, values, personality, family environment, relationships with others, past experiences, and age and developmental stage will all affect how children cope.

As well as these, reactions to a disaster or traumatic event will also be influenced by circumstances such as:

  • Personal experience. Children who have experienced or witnessed the event directly are more likely to need support. However, younger children may also experience trauma from watching reports on the news, having family members in the crisis, or hearing about the story second-hand.
  • Losing loved ones, pets or homes. Parents and children who have experienced severe loss will take longer to recover and need additional support to navigate their grief.
  • ‘Flow-on’ events, including changes in the community, home and school. A disaster or traumatic event can have many secondary effects as the community tries to get back to normal. These may affect a child’s normal routine, isolate them from supports or loved ones and make it more challenging for them to recover.

What behaviours will you see at school?

Children will display a range of reactions after a traumatic event. Some will seem fine but may be hiding that they are upset. Others will ‘act out’ and get angry or aggressive, refuse to listen to you or fight with other children.

It can be very difficult to return to school after a traumatic event. Even though children need to get back to school and normal routine as much as possible, they may not be their normal selves. It will also be harder for them to learn and listen to you.

You may see children in your class:

  • ask questions about the disaster or why things happened
  • not listening to you or asking repetitive questions
  • getting into fights or not playing with their friends
  • crying, visibly upset or distressed
  • with a ‘spaced out’ look on their faces
  • refusing to cooperate, or challenging your authority
  • be overly agitated, withdrawn or sleepy
  • refuse to go to the toilet or other places by themselves
  • have difficulty listening to and following instructions.

As well as the above, younger children (0–5) may have:

  • more tantrums or resist instructions
  • trouble speaking or listening.

Children aged 6–8 may:

  • think the event was their fault
  • fear that the disaster will happen again or that people around them will die
  • believe things that aren’t true, i.e. ‘if I go back to school it will flood again’
  • not want to do sport or other activities.

Children aged 9–12 may:

  • show a new awareness of death or want to talk about death and destruction more than usual
  • have anxiety around previously normal activities, like eating or talking to others
  • show disdain or anger with authority
  • not want to do sport or other activities.

What should I remember?

It is normal to feel overwhelmed or like you have a lot of responsibility after a disaster. You are an educator, but also a parent, friend, community member or first responder.

Many reactions to a traumatic event like nightmares, flashbacks of the event, sadness and anger are all normal signs your body and mind is trying to process it. You should expect the first few weeks to be intense, but gradually lesson over time.

You will be known as a figure of stability and comfort to many children. Your class may be distressed by the event, but all children still need a stable routine, calming or creative activities, and patience from the adults around them. A ‘calm corner’ in your classroom with books, pillows, creative activities and music, can be a good spot for distressed children to calm down.

Many children ‘say’ things with actions instead of words. ‘Naughty’ or misbehaving kids may be sad or angry and not know how to cope with the feelings. Traumatised kids will also find it difficult to learn, listen or take in new information.

Up Next: What feelings might come up for me or the children I know?

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