Rocking and Rolling. The Calm in the Storm: Supporting Young Children before, during, and after a Community Disaster or Trauma
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Ms. Tricia notices the children in her young toddler room becoming a little fussy: Tia keeps asking to be held, Mario didn’t eat any of his morning snack, and Sydney pushed Fabio after he bumped into her on his way to the cubbies. Ms. Tricia wonders what is going on, but then she notices it’s raining hard outside, and remembers the weather reports are calling for severe storms with possible tornados. Just two weeks earlier, a tornado damaged many of the homes in their community. Ms. Tricia’s own home had roof damage, and Mario’s family had to move in with his uncle because their home was destroyed.
Ms. Tricia takes a deep, calming breath. She does a quick scan of her body to see if there is muscle tension, and she works to relax her tight shoulders. She makes a mental note to take time during her breaks for self-care—maybe today she can dedicate five minutes of quiet time to herself during the children’s nap time. Ms. Tricia takes another deep, calming breath, smiles at the toddlers, and reassures them: “It’s raining really hard today. Do you remember when it rained really hard last week, and the wind made loud noises? That was scary. But you know, Ms. Tricia is here with you, and I am going to make sure we are safe in our classroom.”
Young children are affected when community disasters or traumatic events occur (APA 2008). It doesn’t matter what the event is—when a young child’s caregiver is impacted by a stressful occurrence, that child is also impacted, even without having directly experienced the trauma.
A traumatic event in a community introduces a period of great social and emotional vulnerability for children because they do not have the ability to regulate strong emotions on their own. All of the children’s caregivers are likely to be upset by a community disaster—including early childhood educators—and young children read their caregivers’ emotional cues. Early childhood educators’ regulation of their own emotions is an important part of protecting the young children in their care from the potentially negative effects of traumatic events.
How infants and toddlers show their distress is, in part, influenced by their individual temperaments. Some let the world know they are upset by crying loudly and persistently; others react by closing their eyes or hiding under a crib or behind a piece of furniture. Some children may have a flat affect, play less, or become very quiet and still; others may show aggression, such as hitting or biting. Many young children exhibit a combination of all of these behaviors. The developing capacity of a child to self-regulate is first and foremost supported by a consistent, responsive, warm, and nurturing caregiver (Shonkoff et al. 2012). As young children demonstrate their feelings of uncertainty or fear through their behavior, they need calm reassurance to know they are safe.
Meeting young children’s needs in a disaster
By making self-care a priority, you will be better prepared to meet young children’s emotional needs. This practice helps to ensure that you have the emotional reserve necessary to provide the “calm in the storm” that young children need. You can also be a source of calm for children’s parents and other caregivers, providing information and offering them suggestions about supporting their children in simple ways, like quietly, consistently, and frequently reassuring them. Here are some additional tips for you to consider before, during, and after a community trauma.
Before a crisis
Every day, the little things you say and do build trusting relationships with families and children. This trust is very important, especially when a crisis is looming. Inform families about the center’s plans for different types of emergencies to boost trust. For example, if your program is in an area that is prone to tornados, tell parents about emergency shelter and evacuation plans, and the procedures that will be followed once the children are in a safe location.
If your center or program does not already have a communication plan, establish one as soon as possible and help parents and other caregivers understand the importance of keeping their emergency contact information current and accurate. Since you are not likely to have time to make many calls during an emergency, set up an automatic text or phone system to send messages to families, or create a phone chain so every parent is informed. Parents also need a way to contact the teacher or a school administration official who can address their questions and concerns.
Along with plans for physical safety, make plans for emotional security. Partner with parents to share ideas about reassuring and calming their children if they become distressed. The better you know each child in advance, the better you will be at providing the warmth and support each individual needs.
During a crisis
Be prepared for children to communicate their distress or confusion through their behavior. Respond with understanding and compassion to children’s questions: “I know this is different; we are going to the basement because the weather siren says we should move to a place that is safe when there are big winds,” “We are going to stay here, nice and safe, until the big winds pass,” “I know it is really dark. The storm made the lights go out. But we are safe together here. I can give you a big hug if you would like.”
Young children may also feel disoriented if, for instance, the evacuation interrupted their nap or delayed lunch and they are hungry. It’s important to continue using aspects of the daily routine (when possible) during an emergency. For example, engage the children in a simple circle time with familiar songs and activities. Let children snuggle close if that helps them feel secure. Remind children that their parents or other family members will pick them up when it is safe, and that they are safe while they’re with you.
If you feel your own emotions rising, practice mindfulness techniques like focusing on your breath. Notice where you are holding tension in your body and try to release it. Help the children in your care join you in deep belly breathing or other calming activities.
After a crisis
Following a traumatic event, expect strong emotional reactions when children are reunited with their parents or other caregivers. Adults will probably need a great deal of reassurance that their children are okay. Share with parents the messages you have been using to help their children feel safe and calm.
Sometimes in response to worries or fear, a parent may say or do something upsetting, such as crying or describing details of the crisis in front of children. Pay attention to what parents are communicating through their words and behavior, working to hear what they are feeling. Then pause and reflect so you can respond in a positive, constructive way. Let parents know that you will always work with them to make sure their children feel safe and supported.
Tell parents that it is important for them to practice self-care, too. If you notice parents who appear stressed, brainstorm together about what would help families feel most supported during a time of healing and reorganization. Be a good listener for families and empathize with their struggles.
Think about it
- How can you practice self-care and mindfulness in the face of a traumatic event in the community? Consider practices you use regularly so you are better able to handle the strong emotions that usually come with a traumatic event.
- How do the children in your care respond to big changes in their routines? How would each child respond to loud noises? To moving to a new location without warning?
- How can you plan ahead to ease the fear and confusion associated with an emergency situation?
- How can you encourage families to reach out to their own support networks, such as extended family, church groups, or community agencies, for reassurance and assistance?
- Are there creative ways to check in with families following a community disaster to help normalize the strong emotional responses that can occur long after an event is over?
- Plan a time every year to talk about emergency planning with children’s families and to make any necessary updates to their contact information. You can host a “Safety Week” to share ideas for home and classroom. Have parents prepare cards with tips designed specifically to help their children feel safe during a class evacuation.
- Include social and emotional readiness—with input from families—in your emergency plan. Highlight tips for supporting each child’s individual response to change. Add reminders to practice self-care along with ideas for simple mindfulness techniques that can be performed anywhere.
- Unfortunately, traumatic events happen; but the impact of these events lessens when adults respond in ways that help reduce children’s fear, confusion, and distress. Practicing self-care, having an emergency plan, and communicating regularly with families help establish a firm foundation for effective emergency responses.
To learn more about what early care and education professionals can do to support young children through community disasters, see Shelter from the Storm: Resources for Early Care and Education Professionals, a guide by ZERO TO THREE and Save the Children. It is available for download in English and Spanish: www.zerotothree.org/resources/1662-shelter-from-the-storm-resources-for-....
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children. The entire column can be found online at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/columns.
APA. 2008. Children and Trauma: Update for Mental Health Professionals. Washington, DC. http://www.apa.org/pi/ families/resources/children-trauma-update.aspx.
Shonkoff, J.P., A.S. Garner, B.S. Siegel, M.I. Dobbins, M.F. Earls, A.S. Garner, L. McGuinn, J. Pascoe, & D.L. Wood. 2012. The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. Technical report. Pediatrics 129 (1). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e232.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Julia Yeary, ACSW, LCSW, IMH-E®(IV), is the director of military family projects at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed numerous resources and trainings to support professionals in their work with families who have experienced trauma, including Shelter from the Storm. [email protected]