The tornado struck the small southern town three weeks before schools were to end for the year. Eighteen people were killed, and the damage to property was extensive. All three schools were affected, and the high school was nearly destroyed. Numerous staff members at the high school lost their homes and needed time to put their lives back in order. School leaders initially considered ending the year early for the high school. Would that have been the best decision for students? Schools can play an important role in re-establishing routine, providing peer support, and offering opportunities for children to process what has happened.
As educators, and supporters of children, our most important responsibility is to help the helpers first.
Helping the Helpers
Parents and school staff need both opportunities to receive support themselves and guidance on how to help children cope. Schools can schedule meetings for parents, and educators can encourage parents to treat their children with patience, love, warmth and understanding. They can also teach them about normal reactions children may experience, such as fear of the future, behavioral and academic regression, and nightmares.
Parents and caregivers can help children begin to recover by enabling them to express their emotions. Every child has a story to tell. Listening to a child re-examine the experience in a nonjudgmental, supportive manner helps the child process the event, an important step toward recovery.
The School's Role in Recovery
School administrators, support personnel and teachers must be aware of the grief children are experiencing. Sudden loss is more difficult than anticipated loss. Many children may have had a relative, friend or neighbor killed, or experienced the sudden loss of material possessions and pets.
The recovery process from any trauma involves more energy than expected, and the process in children often takes longer than school administrators and parents anticipate. Adolescents in particular are often at risk for substance abuse, reckless behavior, depression and even suicide following traumatic events. Here are a few recommendations to consider:
- Get input from a crisis team before making decisions.
- Conduct meetings to assist faculty.
- Keep school open if at all possible, but if the building is unsafe, then conduct school at another location.
- Be visible, available and approachable.
- Accept outside help when needed.
- Keep everyone updated.
- Help the staff understand that the crisis becomes the curriculum, and relax school expectations about such things as homework and dress codes.
- Give staff and students permission for a range of emotions.
- Help the faculty first.
- Recognize the crisis history of each person and the role that history may play in each individual's reaction to the disaster.
- Locate additional help, and keep a record of who you have seen and any concerns you may have about those persons.
- Ensure that those most affected receive ongoing services.
Teachers can also help by listening to each child and providing activities so children can express their emotions; emphasizing coping strategies, being patient regarding academic performance as trauma affects learning ability and even preparing students for funerals.
There is no limit to how much can be done to support children who have experienced trauma, and this can best be done by maintaining routines. It is vital that schools and community agencies recognize the long-term impact of natural disasters on children and provide support not just for the first few days and weeks, but over a longer period of time, as mental health needs often remain high for months. As author and radio personality Garrison Keillor once stated, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted."
Scott Poland is a frequent contributor to District Administration. He was assisted with this story by Robyn Cassel, a doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University.