BY PAUL MYERS
Disasters can strike anywhere at any time. When the unexpected happens, how can we best care for young children?
Children have unique needs that make them vulnerable during disasters and tragedies. These events are frightening for children of all ages and can leave young children feeling scared, insecure, guilty, sad, and angry.
Schools and child care programs can provide children a place for normalcy after a disaster. These spaces allow children to learn, play, and develop in a stable and safe environment. After an emergency, routine and regular contact with teachers and peers helps children and their families reestablish a sense of safety.
It is normal for children to show some changes in their behavior and feelings during and after a crisis. Children may have more difficulty separating from their families and be more fearful of returning to school. They may be more aggressive, withdrawn, easily upset, or likely to cry.
Some children may have been exposed to extreme danger. They may be coping with significant losses, or may have been displaced from their homes and usual supports. Teachers play an important role in comforting children and in helping them understand and cope with thoughts and feelings about the disaster.
What teachers can do for children
Helping children cope, recover, and learn in the aftermath of a disaster requires creativity, flexibility, and adaptability. The following tips from Save the Children can help establish a classroom atmosphere where children can express their feelings and adjust to a new environment.
Establish safety and control
Identify a supervised safe place in the building where children can sit quietly or receive support from teachers.
Increase children’s sense of control by involving them in planning activities and making choices that affect their day.
Be available to talk one-on-one with the children. This lets them know you care about their feelings and well-being.
Continue the same classroom routines and carry them out as usual.
Create opportunities for children to work and play together. Peer support is important.
Plan activities, rituals, and celebrations that children look forward to, especially around the holidays.
Accept all reactions
Reflect what children say and validate their feelings and experiences. For example, if a child expresses anger about the event, confirm that it’s normal to feel angry about it and that it’s okay to talk about how she feels.
Discuss some of the thoughts and feelings children may be experiencing in reaction to the event. Examples of normal reactions to disasters include irrational fears (e.g., safety of building, fear of lights in the sky), irritability, disobedience, depression, excessive clinging, headaches, nausea, visual or hearing problems, and eating problems.
Encourage children to show compassion to each other. Some children may be insensitive, aggressive, or laugh inappropriately as a way of coping with difficult emotions.
Reassure children that they are safe with you and their classmates and that their families will take care of them.
Help children move toward positive actions
Help children focus on positive things. For example, help children think about the adults in the community who are working to make things better. Encourage children to draw pictures of people, places, or things that make them feel safe.
Encourage and model positive methods of coping with stress and fears. Ask children what they did in the past to help themselves feel better when they were scared or upset.
Help children understand and learn from the disaster
Teach children about natural disasters. For example, discuss what a tornado is and how people can protect themselves from it. This helps children understand what happened.
Encourage children to express their emotions through art, drama, music, photography, or writing. This can be helpful for children who are hesitant to, uncomfortable with, or unable to talk about their emotions.
Most children will soon feel better and recover with good support from their families and teachers. Some children may need extra help. If a child displays more serious behaviors—such as bed wetting, emotional outbursts, sleep terrors, or depression—that do not improve within three months, that child may need more specialized support.
During disaster recovery, it is also important for teachers to take care of themselves and process their own feelings. In the face of so much stress, it is unrealistic to expect teachers and children to go on as if it is business as usual.
What teachers can do for themselves
To reduce their stress, teachers can
Seek out people and resources that support their life and work
Create a supportive and positive atmosphere among colleagues
Talk with colleagues to gain support and learn from each other
When teachers are patient with their own recovery, they can better support children and their families.
Children depend on the stability and well-being of their caregivers. They understand and process events based on messages they receive from the adults around them. When teachers are equipped with positive and constructive coping mechanisms, they can better model healthy skills for the children in their care.
NAEYC. 2012. “Coping With Disasters.” www.naeyc.org/newsroom/resources_on_coping_with_disasters.
Save the Children US Center for Child Development and Resiliency. “Children and Emergencies.” www.savethechildren.org/uscenter-emergencies.