What educators can expect in the short term after a disaster or community trauma

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

Resource Summary

Key points

  • Childcare and school environments can provide much needed safety, stability and predictability for children.
  • Children of all ages can be profoundly affected by disasters and traumatic events. Children need special attention.
  • Educator’s need support around their own wellbeing in order to be able to help the children in their care.
  • Children’s reactions following disaster are significantly influenced by their age and developmental stage, support from their parents and other adults around them, the availability of a broader social network and their subsequent sense of safety, security and predictability.
  • Most children will recover from a traumatic event over time, with some experiencing positive change for the better.
  • Some children will continue to experience difficulties.
  • Some children will seem fine at first, then be distressed at a later point.
  • Children may experience distress even if they did not experience the event personally.
  • Adults around children will also be dealing with their own grief and loss, and may need increased support to provide stability and routine for their children.

A vital but challenging role

Returning to a teaching role in a community that has experienced a disaster can feel overwhelming. Educators play a vital role in helping communities recover after a disaster; however, it can be hard because often you have experienced loss yourself, but feel you have a responsibility to help the children in your school.

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.

Educators are in a unique position to help monitor students over time and see how they are doing. Sometimes a child will not show that they are upset or distressed at home because their parents are also having trouble, and educators can help identify supports that will help these families.

What to expect

The majority of children will recover in the weeks and months after an event. A small percentage of children will continue to experience long-term difficulties.

Children are more likely to need more time and support if they:

  • directly experienced the event
  • lost a family member, loved one or pet
  • are experiencing continued loss and disruption after the event.

What can I expect to feel?

Educators are also parents, family and community members, and often even first responders in a disaster. You may feel conflicted and torn about your different roles in the community and how much you should help others versus looking after your own ‘backyard’.

During the weeks and months after a disaster or traumatic event, it can be helpful to set up both formal and informal supports within your school, to share stories, concerns and successes. Over this time, the intensity of feelings you and your students experience may come and go but for most, they will eventually lessen. Sometimes they return when you are reminded of the event.

For some, their distressing feelings and thoughts can persist or even get worse over time. If your distress is not going away or interfering with your day-to-day life, you should discuss it with your GP and ask family and friends for support.

Lots of adults disregard their own needs and assume that they will be okay. Research has shown that an adult’s wellbeing is the strongest indicator for children recovering well from trauma. Educators are vital in supporting children’s recovery. It is really important that you get the help and support you need and that will help you support your students.

Considering a child’s experiences

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 like this 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.

What can I expect from the families of children in my school?

Depending on their experience, families may have trouble adjusting to post-event life at first. If your community has experienced a wide-scale disaster, families and children may have to go without basic needs such as regular meals and shelter. There may be a number of changes and stressors in the months following the event, such as families in temporary accommodation or being out of work.

Parents will also be dealing with their own grief and loss from the event and some may be at struggling to cope at times.

They may:

  • have trouble letting their children go to school
  • constantly contact you to ask how they are
  • be unable to connect with or provide emotional support for their children
  • be affected by mental health issues that impact their children.

It is understandable that parents may feel scared or uncertain about letting their children go places without them after a traumatic event like a disaster. t’s important to remind parents who are anxious that children need to get back to routine as soon as possible, which includes going back to school and playing with their friends.

What can I expect from the children in my school?

The majority of children will be fine. You can expect the majority of children to either be fine or to recover over time from some initial sadness, worry and distress. These children will need continued reassurance, stability and support from you.

Some children will need extra support. Some children will continue to experience difficulties that may not get better by themselves. These children will need continued reassurance, stability and support from you. They may also need early intervention strategies to alleviate more severe symptoms, like learning support or a ‘calm space’ where they can go if things become overwhelming.

You may see delays or disruption in learning, speaking, motor skill development and memory as children’s concentration can be affected. You can help by asking their suggestions for fun classroom activities, having a regular learning routine and giving older children some choice in preferred learning or assignments.

Some children will be scared of new things or find it harder to cope with changes in routine. You can talk to your class each morning about what is going to happen that day so children are not surprised and can prepare themselves if necessary. Warn your class well in advance if an event at school is coming up.

All children need time, patience, care and stable routine in the months following a traumatic event. Behaviours and reactions will come and go over time in varying levels of severity.

If you teach or care for younger children (0–5), you may see:

  • increased tension, inability to relax or calm down
  • increased sensitivity to small noises or movements
  • loss of skills they recently developed, like feeding themselves or using the toilet
  • increased fussiness and clinginess
  • crying all the time or with increased intensity
  • avoiding new things or going new places
  • avoiding or getting frightened by reminders of the event
  • listlessness or seeming limp
  • diminished interest in things or a ‘spaced out’ stare
  • resistance to directions or requests
  • sickness more often with colds, headaches or stomach aches
  • playing out or drawing the event, or ‘playing disaster’
  • self-directed blame for the event or making up stories why it happened.

If you teach children in early primary school (6–8), you may see:

  • mood or personality changes
  • behaviours usually seen in much younger children
  • increased tension and irritability
  • increased sensitivity to small noises or movements
  • increased clinginess or fear of being alone
  • increased tiredness because they have trouble sleeping
  • diminished attention and being easily distracted
  • reluctance to wanting to be at school or see/talk to others
  • acting out by hurting others or themselves
  • changes in normal eating patterns
  • new fears or old fears coming back
  • lack of eye contact or a ‘spaced out’ look
  • anxiety or worried about lots of things
  • self-directed blame for what happened
  • bodily aches and pains
  • changes or delays in speech, memory or learning.

If you teach children in late primary or early high school (9–12), you may see:

  • mood or personality changes
  • increased tension, irritability or aggression
  • increased sensitivity to small noises or movements
  • diminished attention or being easily distracted or ‘blanking out’ for longer periods of time
  • reluctance to wanting to be at school or see/talk to others
  • withdrawing into themselves, not speaking to others or seeing their friends
  • acting out by hurting others or themselves, taking risks or getting into fights with others
  • changes in normal eating
  • increased tiredness or sleeping in class
  • new fears or old fears coming back
  • lack of eye contact or a ‘spaced out’ look
  • anxiety or worry about lots of things
  • efforts to avoid reminders of the event
  • changes or delays in speech, memory or learning
  • a new awareness of death and mortality
  • rebellion against or disdain for authority
  • academic difficulties or trouble at school
  • behaviours of a younger child (e.g. poor toileting, tantrums) or much older teenager (e.g. substance use, staying out late, promiscuous dating).

No matter their age, you should consider the child’s home life when responding to their reactions. Children may come to school dirty, tired or without a proper school uniform. They may misbehave, skip school or refuse to participate in class.

These behaviours are often communicating that things are not okay for that child. They may be exhausted from living away from home, they may have lost their favourite belonging or their parents may be having difficulty coping.

It is important to remain calm and patient with all children and offer extra support to children who seem to be having increased difficulties.

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