How Can Schools Help Children Cope with Disasters

Schools, teachers and parents can help children cope with disasters and traumatic events. First of all, school administrators, teachers and staff must bear in mind that children and teens will respond to stress and disasters in different ways depending on several factors. They are not adults and as such lack the experience to have developed coping mechanisms or skills. We need to help them through the process of grieving and returning to normal. These factors include their family background, developmental skills, teacher or peer support, temperament and their capacity to bounce back.

Here are some ideas on how can school help children cope with disasters.

1. Be willing to listen.

Empathy and eagerness to listen when children share their fears and concerns make the children feel cared for. Build a confidential and safe atmosphere where kids can talk about their worries and fears. Admit that what happened is truly frightening. This is no time to show indifference or denial of the gravity of the event to the child. Saying "Don't worry" or "Forget it" will do little help and could even make the child feel that his feelings are misunderstood. In schools, it is important for children to feel that there are people whom they can talk to about their fears. They could be his teacher, guidance counselor or principal.

2. Reassurance.

Kids need to be reassured frequently to let them feel safe. In their world, these events should have never happened. Give them a reason to believe that is not possible.

3. Help kids identify and convey their feelings in the appropriate way.

When kids are engaged in unhealthy or non-adaptive behaviors like withdrawal or aggression, adults can help kids identify the emotions that caused such behavior and then name these feelings. For example, if a child seems aggressive, a teacher could say "It looks like you are truly mad about losing all your toys." Then, she can suggest a way to handle the anxiety like drawing, discussing about it or writing in a journal.

4. Form and get back to a routine and consistency.

Even if schools and families also affected by natural disasters may have difficulty in returning to their daily routines, they can help provide routines and consistency to their everyday life.

5. Involve kids and teens in activities that help others.

Allowing them to get involved in helpful things can provide them a sense of control over their situation. Some activities where children can be involved are collecting things such as food, clothing or money; helping other people clean; or helping others with their daily chores. In school, children can help draw illustrations and pictures for books; or visit nursing homes. They can also help in donating food or toys.

6. Decrease demands.

Stress and trauma can trigger fatigue and decreased energy levels and it follows that demands must be reduced in children. In school, teachers can help by decreasing the volume of homework and class work. Still hold them accountable, but cut them a break at times and choose your battles wisely.

7. Handle your own stress adaptively.

Kids can also pick up on adult's stress. Kids should be given caregivers who are emotionally and physically stable. So, as teachers who have also experienced disasters, look for ways to decrease your own stress, to realize the seriousness of the situation and to recognize when to ask for professional help. Discussing your problems with your colleagues, family and friends is really essential. Become a good model for children: discover joy in simple things, enjoy other people's company, have even greater faith in your religious beliefs, gather stronger spiritual strength and of course, count your blessings.

8. Be ready to recognize behaviors that need immediate professional assistance.

Teachers and parents of kids who have experienced disasters should look for mental health professionals if these behaviors are seen:

Avoidance and denial of the disaster; lack of response to the disaster

Loss of interest in any activity, feelings of despair and hopelessness, deep emptiness, incapacity to experience joy

Unclear feelings of depression and guilt

Prolonged anxiety about the disaster

Incapacity to react to comfort or support rejection

Lack of sociability

Sleeping and eating problems, abnormal weight loss or gain

Prolonged instead of brief physical complaint

Educational Literature on Helping Children Cope With Disasters

Steps to Take in School Emergency Preparedness
  1. Attack on America in Context
  2. Coping with Fears and Stress- ERIC Digest
  3. Coping with Loss and Grief through Online Support Groups- ERIC/CASS Digest
  4. Crisis Intervention: An Opportunity To Change- ERIC Digest
  5. Post-Traumatic Loss Debriefing: Providing Immediate Support for Survivors of Suicide or Sudden Loss- ERIC Digest
  6. Suicide and Sudden Loss: Crisis Management in the Schools- ERIC Digest
  7. Using Literature To Help Children Cope with Problems- ERIC Document
  8. When Terrorists Strike: What School Counselors Can Do- ERIC Digest