In a webinar, Professor Carol Mutch shared her research from over twelve years of supporting schools through different disasters and crises both in Aotearoa and the wider Asia-Pacific area. She shared how the role of teachers changes as communities respond to and recover from the event, as schools reopen, and as children return with different levels of trauma.
Four key themes have emerged from Carol’s research into schools’ response to disaster and trauma in countries including New Zealand, Japan, Nepal, and Vanuatu. Firstly, schools become community hubs during the aftermath of a disaster, providing resources like emergency accommodation. Secondly, school leaders become, by necessity, crisis managers during unfolding disasters, which places a huge amount of stress on them. Thirdly, teachers often become first responders, as well as needing to provide ongoing support and care beyond the scope and duration of centrally provided trauma care.Finally, children can, with the right strategies, support, and opportunities, be highly competent in supporting their own recovery and that of their friends and their community, so it is important to listen to children and their ideas about what is needed and what might help.
Children respond to disasters in a wide range of ways. Some might be distraught and teary, while others might be angry and aggressive, or regress into more childlike behaviours. Inappropriate or ill-timed laughter may also be a response to fear or anxiety. Very young children may become listless and lack energy, or they may become anxious and distressed. Triggers are common, such as loud noises or vibrations from a passing vehicle in the case of an earthquake, or rain in the case of a cyclone or extreme weather event. Talking to children about the different ways the brain reacts to trauma and responds to triggers (such as fight, flight, or freeze) may help children to understand that their responses are natural and normal. Similarly, there is no set time frame in which children will recover from trauma, although most recover within a few months. Be aware that if children already have a history of trauma, particularly unresolved or unaddressed trauma, a significant traumatic event such as an earthquake or extreme weather event may trigger a severe trauma response.
When children return to school or their early childhood centre, they need familiarity, regularity, and consistency, which help give them a feeling of control. It may be necessary to use an adjusted routine at first, as children’s heightened emotions will impose an additional cognitive load which must be taken into account when setting timetables and planning lessons. The first consideration is to provide routines and schedules that feel familiar, and then to return to regular timetables gradually.
Teachers can also help children and young people find safe ways of processing the emotions they are feeling. This involves recognising, naming, and expressing how they are feeling, which again gives them a sense of control, and teaching techniques for calming down and relaxing. The arts, such as drama or picture books, are a good vehicle for processing emotions for primary school-aged children. It also helps to let children and young people know that others have experienced what they have, and felt as they do.
There are many existing programmes and approaches that will support schools and early childhood centres to be more trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive, but it is imperative to be consistent across the whole system. The role of the leader is to ensure that trauma-informed principles and practices are enacted by all teachers and school personnel. One of the most important roles teachers can play is to find joy in the everyday and to keep hope alive.
It is almost always those who have experienced the trauma themselves who are responsible for providing the trauma response. Despite all the many demands on teachers and school leaders to provide physical, material, emotional, and psychological support in the aftermath of a traumatic event, it is essential that they look after themselves first so that they are able to help others. Taking breaks and attending to their own physical and mental wellbeing is extremely important. Websites such as First Steps and All Right? offer help and guidance. Involving parents and working with them to support each other and the children, as well as helping them access outside support and services, is valuable.
Remember that trauma may lead to delayed responses years after the event. For example, children who were not even born when the Christchurch earthquakes happened came to school unsocialised, not toilet trained, and with a range of other needs as a result of the long-term or secondary effects of the earthquakes, such as housing insecurity and ongoing financial pressures. Similarly, there has been a spike in mental health needs in teenagers who were young children when the earthquakes happened.