Home Good Teaching Helping Students Cope with Trauma Following Natural Disasters

Helping Students Cope with Trauma Following Natural Disasters

by Guest Blogger

This blog post draws on my experiences and lessons learned from working during the recovery phase of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. In the wake of Harvey’s impact on much of Southeast Texas, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about how disasters affect students. Disasters are calamitous events, traumatic and outside the scope of normal human experiences. They are likely to involve psychological and physical injury. Disasters uniquely affect children because they are affected not only by the trauma of the event, but also by their parents’ fear and distress. When disasters strike, it disrupts the functioning of schools, communities, families, and children’s’ development. The recovery phase of the disaster can impact students’ future development and may contribute to weak academic achievement moving forward as the students acclimate to the new normal.

The Long-Term Effects of Trauma on Students

Studies show that childhood exposure to traumatic events can have a profound long-term impact on mental and physical health, high school graduation, and poverty. Stress is inflicted on the developing brain, which can impact social-emotional well-being and force children into survival mode. While a child’s natural response to this trauma may result in difficulty paying attention or regulating emotions, it can often be overlooked or misunderstood. This can lead to school suspensions, poor student achievement, or escalation of conflicts. Today, too few children who experience traumatic events are identified and supported with the right care. Thus, they are more likely to have behavioral issues at school including detentions, suspensions, expulsions, or dropping out. Learning cannot take place while the child is stuck in a survival mode, and treatment cannot begin until the problem has been properly identified.

Seven Tips for Teachers as You Return to the Classroom

  1. Teachers must be aware of their own stress. The disaster did not just impact students, but everyone, including teachers and staff.
  2. Teachers should be aware students may now react differently to sights, sounds, and smells as these may bring the student back to a traumatic moment.
  3. Teachers should understand they may have to move slower with material as everyone may find it difficult to focus upon returning to the classroom.
  4. It’s okay to let students know how you feel and felt.
  5. Student reactions may seem out of sync with situations. For example, they may cry, fight, suddenly leave the classroom, or freeze. Be patient and give them space, recognizing that they are not personally attacking you, but are instead reacting out of unconscious fight/flight/freeze reactions.
  6. Remember when students return to their former schools, their fellow students and former teachers may not be there, due to injury or displacement. This may be deeply unsettling to students.
  7. If your classroom has new students due to displacement, they may experience bullying, peer victimization, isolation, or other negative ramifications.

Kids Can Be a Powerful Force

To mitigate the future effects of disasters, the United Nations and other groups contend that children must be active in disaster preparedness and risk reduction and educated on resilience. This is crucial because children are the single biggest group affected by disasters across the world and thus, have a heavy stake in terms of preparedness and risk reduction. Engaging youth is an integral step in preparing the nation for all hazards. Youth have a unique ability to influence their peers and families to be more resilient and can play an important role in disaster preparedness during and after a crisis. Kids are seen as a trusted source of information. They are also good messengers and can play special roles in communicating preparedness information to their communities, friends, and family, especially in families where English is a second language. Here are three reasons why youth are a powerful force in helping prepare for disasters:

  • Youth who are trained in preparedness are more resilient in actual disasters.
  • Youth are highly-effective messengers for reaching and influencing parents and other adults.
  • Youth who are engaged today will ensure a future generation of prepared adults.

Disaster and Trauma-Informed Game-Based Learning  

A panel of educational experts at Stanford University concluded that using game applications as educational tools provides opportunities for deeper learning, especially when it comes to understanding the affects of disasters. Traditional classrooms can sometimes stifle the attributes most crucial for learning. Game-based learning and educational applications helps to develop non-cognitive skills that are as fundamental as cognitive skills in explaining how we learn and if we succeed. Those non-cognitive skills – that is, not what you know, but how you behave –are far more important in emergency situations than non-threatening situations. Games can provide a better way for students to attain and retain knowledge that is useful in emergencies. Knowledge is not the sole tool we want in emergency situations. The value of having knowledge is knowing how to make choices using that knowledge. Engagement knowledge is paramount as the frequency of disasters increases.

Are you looking for games to help your students develop engagement knowledge? Some places to find disaster literacy game-based learning tools and exercises are at the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov, the App Store, and Microsoft Skype for the Classroom. You can access free Skype lesson plans here. You can also check out this series of books designed for children to master hurricane preparedness.

This is a guest blog by Kenneth Bibbins, who is the Founder and CEO of PrepWorld LLC. On July 25, 2017 PrepBiz LLC announced the release of Hopper’s Hurricane Adventure, the first in a series of unique children’s books aimed at preparing youth ages 5-9 for natural and human-caused disasters. The Adventures of Hopper series books were designed to familiarize children with disaster risks and help vulnerable youth to better cope and make informed decisions during real-life situations.

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