Helping children who have experienced disaster

Help children to understand that it is okay to feel frightened or angry.

Teachers hold a unique position in the world of the young child, Emeritus Professor Marjory Ebbeck, University of South Australia, writes.

Outside of the family they’re the most significant and trusted adults the child knows. They provide a welcoming and secure environment and have established a trusting bond with the children they teach and care for.

Teachers will understand how important the overall wellbeing of their children is. The social/emotional welfare of children is of paramount importance. In a rapidly changing world, children will have to cope with many changes during their life and teachers need to understand how to help children develop emotionally and become resilient.

This issue of coping with disasters has been brought to the forefront by the catastrophic bushfires that have ravaged much of Australia in recent months, leaving families homeless and devastated. The loss of a secure home with its familiar surroundings and precious belongings, including comfort toys, is likely to cause great distress, even trauma, in young children. The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch recently ran an innovative online professional development course called Responding to Bushfire Trauma. It was accessed by hundreds of members.

Teachers need to be prepared to work proactively and reactively when children experience a disaster. They need to understand that trauma is a shock after some serious environmental disaster, a major family loss or other forms of disaster. A family separation can also cause trauma in some instances. The child may be experiencing extreme feelings of confusion and pain, and other negative emotions, resulting in various forms of adverse behavioural responses.

Build resilience

There are strategies teachers can use to build resilience in children: getting them to persist, to stay with tasks, to solve problems, develop independence and allowing them to take risks (children need to be safe, however).

Teachers must build a trusting relationship with their students. Children need to feel emotionally and physically safe. This is what a trusting relationship can provide. Always be consistent and respectful in interactions with children. Understand and accept their individual differences. Be responsive to the needs of children. Creating a bond with children takes time. Wellbeing is of prime importance. If children are happy, they will learn effectively. However, in times of disasters, children’s confidence and wellbeing may be adversely affected.

Continue to provide a predictable routine with your children. A daily routine helps to develop a sense of security. However, there will be times when flexibility is needed. In times of disaster returning to the secure base of a school or centre may help children to regain some sense of security and normality in their lives.

Express feelings

Very young children, infants and toddlers, however, often have their own timetable and it changes over time. Encourage the expression of feelings and make talking a part of the room practices. Listen attentively to children. This is not always easy in a busy room. However, be aware of the quiet child – often it is the children with outgoing personalities who claim most teacher attention and others can be overlooked in discussions. Children who have experienced trauma may be reluctant to express emotions and could be withdrawn.

Safe risk taking

Encourage children to take safe risks within their level of development. Physical activity is important for growing children and activities outside as well as inside need to be challenging but safe.

Engage in activities to solve interesting and relevant problems that children can identify with. For children four years plus, encourage them to think about how we can protect the environment.

Be involved in some community activities to become more aware of the role of community members, for example, firefighters, water bombing planes and how these people keep us safe.

Encourage empathy

This, in essence, is to understand the feelings of others, and be able to show this in some way. Young toddlers have been known, for example, to offer a tissue and touch a child who is crying in a caring way.

Practise emergency routines

Some years ago, one would not have thought it necessary to practise emergencies many times, but teachers today need to show children how important routine practices are in times of emergencies as it’s necessary to keep everyone safe.

Climate change is occurring and environmental disasters are increasing. Teachers and children need to know and follow the preschool or service’s emergency plan without hesitation.

After a disaster

Make contact with families to assess what the situation is, how they can be supported and specifically how their children can be helped. Teaching is a human services endeavour and often extends beyond helping the child to also helping the family.

When the child returns to the service, check that they are drinking fluids and eating. After a severe trauma some children may not feel like eating. They can become dehydrated if they do not take enough fluids. Keep in touch with parents in relation to sharing their child’s welfare and challenges in coping with the effects of a disaster.

Observe children closely and work out an individual plan. Although children will differ in their responses, there are some strategies that usually help.

Encourage children to use words to express their emotions. When children feel safe, they are more likely to express emotions. Avoidance of talking is normal for children who may not want to talk about painful events. Show sensitivity to the needs of individual children.

Help children to understand that it is okay to feel frightened or angry. Follow the lead of the child and be a listener if they are able to talk about their emotions.

Give children the opportunity to express their emotions through drawing, painting and other art forms such as modelling and collage work.

Play out fears

Provide opportunities for children to play out their fears through dramatic play. For young children, this should be undirected with the child spontaneously playing out what is important to them. Teachers can provide props and importantly give children time. Privacy is important and makeshift cubby houses can provide this for young children.

Include in story time books that deal with emotions. Leave me Alone! (Bode & Broere, 2013), is a good example. Teachers need to discuss the emotion, asking children if they have ever felt this way, emphasising acceptance of emotions.

Encourage children to play freely with friends as this can help children to release emotions and enjoy needed companionship.

After a disaster, a child’s emotional state may take a long time to return to some feeling of wellbeing and optimism. Sustained support is going to be essential for children and their families.

Thank you to our teachers who make an enduring commitment in their role as ‘educarers’ of our young children in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Books dealing with emotions

Bode, A. D., & Broere, R. (2011). I can’t find you, mom! London: Tulip books.

Bode, A. D., & Broere, R. (2011). I don’t like the dark! London: Tulip books.

Bode, A. D., & Broere, R. (2013). Leave me alone. London: Tulip books.

Burgess-Manning, J., & Cooper, J. (2015). Maia and the Worry Bug. NZ: Kotuku Creative.

French, J., & Whatley, B. (2011). Flood. Lindfield, NSW: Scholastic Press.

Kaiser, C., & Pillo, C. (2004). If you’re angry and you know it! New York: Scholastic.

Kobald, I. A., & Blackwood, F. (2014). My two blankets. Richmond, Victoria, Australia: Little Hare, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont.

Marin, G., & Grantford, J. (2007). A true person. Frenchs Forest, NSW: New Frontier Publishing.

Potter, M. (2014). How are you feeling today? London: Featherstone Education.

Wiesner, D. (1990). Hurricane. USA: Clarion Books.