K-12 Schools

Children’s Developmental Level and Disasters: A Fact Sheet for Teachers and AdministratorsImage - schools

People of all ages share some similar feelings and reactions in response to disaster. Teachers and administrators, however, have a special role to play in meeting the needs of children and adolescents in coping with and recovery from disaster. School personnel have the capability to understand these needs and can help students through these difficult times. In addition to staff and faculty, it is also important for students to understand their own responses in order to cope with disaster and trauma.

Typical disaster-related reactions for children and adolescents of all ages include:

  • Fears of future disasters or of events associated with the disaster
  • Loss of interest in general activities, school, work, or hobbies
  • Regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking and toilet-training accidents
  • Sleep disturbances and night terrors

Here are some responses of people of various ages, and some suggestions for ways of being helpful.

Preschool (ages 1-5): Children in this age group are particularly vulnerable to disruption. These children often need others to help them cope with the disruption and with their responses to the disturbance. Abandonment is a major fear associated with this age group. Thus, children who have experienced losses of loved ones (including pets or even toys) often need special reassurance. Typical responses include:

  • Thumb sucking
  • Bed-wetting, loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Fears of the darkness or of animals
  • Physical and emotional “clinginess” to parents and teachers
  • Night terrors
  • Speech difficulties (e.g., stammering)
  • Loss or increase of appetite

Teachers and support professionals can respond helpfully to children between the ages of 1-5 by:

  • Encourage expression through play or other symbolic creative activities such as coloring or clay sculpting. Children of this age often express their feelings of grief and loss mostly clearly through non-verbal methods.
  • Provide verbal reassurance and physical comforting
  • Give frequent and extra attention
  • Plan calming and comforting activities, and de-emphasize stressful tasks
  • Encourage parents to allow short term changes in sleep arrangements such as allowing children to sleep with a light on or with the door open, or on a mattress in the parents' or another child's room, or remaining with the child while the child falls asleep. Reassure your students of your predictable and stable presence.

Early childhood (ages 5-11) In this stage of development, children often display Regressive Behavior. This is when children tend to display behaviors or interaction styles from previous developmental levels. This is one of the most typical responses is children of this stage. This is thought to be because children in this developmental stage experience a sense of loss more intensely than others in ways that are more difficult for them to manage. Some typical forms taken by regression include:

  • Irritability
  • Whining
  • Clinging
  • Aggressive behavior at home or school or other in other settings.
  • Open competition with younger siblings for teachers’ attention
  • Night terrors, nightmares, fear of darkness
  • School avoidance or other problems
  • Withdrawal from peers
  • Loss of interest and poor concentration in school

Some things that are helpful in the school environment are:

  • Patience and tolerance
  • Play sessions and discussions with adults and peers
  • Relaxation of expectations at school or at home (with a clear understanding that this is temporary and the normal routine will be resumed at a later date).
  • Opportunities for structured but not demanding tasks at school
  • Rehearsal of safety measures to be taken in future disasters in a way that is appropriate to the developmental level of the students

Pre-adolescent (ages 11-14): Peer reactions are especially significant in this age group. Students need to feel that their fears are both appropriate and shared by others. Responses should be aimed at lessening tensions and anxieties and possible guilt feelings.

Typical responses include:

  • Sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance
  • Rebellion in the home and school
  • Task refusal such as not doing homework or assignments
  • School problems (e.g., fighting, withdraw, loss of interest, attention seeking behavior)
  • Physical problems (e.g., headaches, vague aches and pains, skin eruptions, bowel problems, psychosomatic complaints)
  • Loss of interest in peer social activities

Some things that may be helpful are:

  • Group activities geared toward the resumption of routines
  • Involvement with same age group activity
  • Group discussions geared toward relieving the disaster and rehearsing appropriate behavior for future disasters
  • Structured but undemanding responsibilities
  • Temporary relaxed expectations of performance at school
  • Additional individual attention and consideration

Adolescent (ages 14-18): Adolescence is a time when peer-groups are most important. Thus, any disaster or disruption of these groups or activities and roles associated with peer-groups are usually the most distressing for individuals in this age group.

Typical responses include:

  • Psychosomatic symptoms (e.g., rashes, bowel problems, asthma)
  • Headaches and tension
  • Appetite or sleep disturbance
  • Hypochondriasis
  • Amenorrhea or dysmenonhea
  • Decrease in energy level
  • Apathy or Agitation
  • Irresponsible and/or delinquent behavior
  • Decline in autonomy and assertiveness in the school environment
  • Poor concentration

Some support responses that might be helpful are:

  • Encouraging participation in the community rehabilitation or reclamation work
  • Encouraging the resumption of social activities, athletics, club involvement, etc.
  • Encouraging discussion of the disaster experiences with peers in the school environment in a way that is safe and contained
  • Temporarily reducing expectations for level of school and general performance

Some of the material in this fact sheet is adapted and modified from this site. (pdf)

Web Links

This web page from the American Psychological Association, entitled “Reactions and Guidelines for Children Following Trauma/Disaster,” contains some very helpful and specific information tailored for the most part to various school levels.

The American Red Cross offers information on disaster education for children.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers age and development-specific resources regarding children and disasters.

A fact sheet on the impact of terrorism and disasters on children from the American Psychological Association.

A guide from the American Psychological Association for adults and teachers on guidelines to help children build resilience following a disaster, trauma and other threats.

The National Institute for Mental Health offers resources regarding traumatic events and children and adolescents.

The National Association of School Psychologists offers school safety and crisis resources, including information on crisis teams in schools.

The Center for Health and Healthcare in Schools offers various mental health resources for teachers, parents, and students.

Sesame Street’s affiliated organization, Sesame Workshop, offers a wealth of emotional health resources for children and their parents.

SupportOffice.org offers comprehensive information on supporting children during disaster and trauma.