Natural disasters can be especially difficult for students to cope with. While a violent storm or earthquake can be frightening for adults, for students the loss of routine, structure and security can be especially troubling. The circumstances caused by natural disasters create unique issues and challenges for the grieving and coping process of children.

Grief not only describes the process of mourning the loss of a person, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it also describes the loss of physical things, familiar routines and the structure of life. When a natural disaster strikes a community, often families are displaced, routines like work and school are disrupted, and attentions are turned to recovery and rebuilding.

For most children, significant adults play important roles in their ability to manage the response to challenging problems. Schools can play an important role for students by providing a familiar, stable environment, by modeling effective coping strategies, and offering safe venues to discuss feelings and concerns that would accompany natural disasters.

Each Circumstance is Unique

Each disaster brings its own set of circumstances and presents its own challenges for recovery and coping. Hurricanes, for example, are predicted days in advance, giving families time to prepare. The anticipation can add to the fear and anxiety that a student may face. Earthquakes carry the additional issue of aftershocks, which can occur for a length of time following the major quake. Tornadoes, on the other hand, can bring about mass destruction with little time to prepare.

Following the disaster, similar sights, sounds and smells can trigger the feelings of fear, anxiety and loss of the disaster. Subsequent storms can stir the feelings that came when the hurricane or tornado struck. Sounds of explosions, smoke, or items shaking can bring back the fears associated with an earthquake.

If the natural disaster results in the loss of life, helping the student cope has the additional challenge that any of the triggers may also spur the memory of the pain of losing the loved one. In addition, many children express guilt that they still have a house or family intact when others were not as fortunate.

Administrators and teachers that acknowledge repercussions continue to occur months or years after the disaster can provide the understanding and compassion necessary to guide the student through the unique feelings of grief that accompany natural disasters.

Administrators: Assisting in Recovery

Administrators play a key role in setting the tone for everyone in handling the crisis, but also in responding quickly to the disaster with help and support. If the school has a crisis intervention team, the administrator will activate this group and begin implementing the school’s plan for response to a natural disaster.

There are several things that the administrator can do to facilitate a positive response to the disaster. Here are some items to consider.

  1. With a crisis intervention team, or a select group of teachers and staff, identify the students who are at high risk and plan interventions that are appropriate. Interventions may include group crisis counseling, individual and family counseling, and academic support plans. Administrators may want to consider the structure through which people can self-refer for assistance.
  2. Staff and teachers will be under a great deal of pressure and responsibility in responding to the disaster. Provide adequate support and assistance for them as they carry out their duties. Information about how children respond to disaster could be given out in meetings. Health care professionals could be brought in to discuss symptoms and strategies. Reinforce to the adults that if there is anything that they do not feel comfortable handling, additional support will be provided.
  3. Provide purposeful post-disaster activities that will promote healing to both the school staff and faculty and the students and their parents. Several types of research show that the components that are often most effective in recovery are providing exposure to guided discussion about the events;  promotion of positive coping and problem-solving skills; and activities that strengthen the student’s friendships and peer support.

Teachers: Guiding the Child with Coping Skills

Students may respond to a natural disaster in a variety of ways dependent upon several factors. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the responses will likely hinge upon exposure to the actual event, personal injury, loss of a loved one, level of support from significant adults, and several pre-existing risks borne from their unique personal experiences.

Several behaviors from children are common reactions to natural disasters. For preschoolers and early elementary it would not be uncommon to see thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents or adults, sleep disruptions, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, fear of being alone, regression in behavior, or withdrawal.

Upper elementary students often display irritability, aggressiveness, a lack of concentration, withdrawal from activities, clinginess, nightmares, or school avoidance. Adolescents may demonstrate sleeping and eating disorders, increase in conflicts with everyone, physical ailments and complaints, delinquent behavior or poor concentration.

Disasters place a great deal of emotional and physical stress on a child. As a result, the mood of the child may change rapidly. It might be common for the child to have upset stomachs, a loss of concentration, sleepless nights and times of extreme mood swings. Younger children may have fits of temper tantrums and periods of acting out.

There are things that a teacher can do when a natural disaster impacts the behavior and routine of children and teens. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Be available for the child. Help them to know that it is alright to talk about what has happened in safe settings like school and home.
  • Affirm security through structure and routine. When everything has been disrupted, things that you can do to restore routine is helpful in reassuring the child and beginning to rebuilt security and trust.
  • Listen. Sometimes children don’t need answers, they simply need to have someone hear their feelings and concerns. Pay attention to what they say. Observe any changes in behavior.
  • Limit the amount of explanation about what has happened to information that is age-appropriate. Do not feel obligated to tell the children every detail that has happened. Explain what they ask about. Be honest if a question does not have an answer. Monitor the amount of time that they spend talking about the disaster. Be cautious about the amount of media exposure to the events they are allowed to view.
  • Be gracious yet firm when dealing with their behavior. It is common for the child to be more emotional, more hyper and more uncontrolled than normal. Be gracious as you allow the expressions of feelings. Yet, work hard to reinforce structure and routine into the day.
  • Find creative ways for the child to express their feelings. Writing in journals, drawing pictures, composing poetry and listening to music are but a few of the ways that a student can use the arts to help process grief.
  • Assure them that government and agency workers are there to help them feel safe. They will be working hard to provide services and to begin the rebuilding process.

By taking positive actions, the student will be comforted and strengthened by knowing that their parents and teachers are working together to restore security in the midst of difficult times.