K-12 Schools

Connecting With Students’ Experiences of Disaster: A Guide for Teachers and AdministratorsImage - schools

Everyone responds to disasters differently, as a function of our life experiences and developmental levels. Thus, it is very important for Teachers, Administrators, as well as Students to understand what is going on inside and among individuals following disaster or trauma. Below are some general guidelines for connecting with students and individuals in these times of difficulty.

Support professionals must strive to put aside personal experiences in order to best connect with children’s experience of the disaster. Some ideas on how to do this are:

  • Paying attention to children's fears that are often very different from those of adults. Any time that students are motivated to speak out or to ask a question, teachers and faculty should use it as an opportunity. The field expresses the idea that in schools, professionals should, “let the crisis become the curriculum” for some time following the disaster.
  • Recognizing the feeling underlying students’ actions and attempt to put it into words. Saying something like, "It makes us sad to think about all of the people and homes that were affected by this hurricane," or "It seems to me that you are feeling really angry that this happened," can sometimes help tremendously. Try not to make students feel embarrassed or dismissed when they express their thoughts, feelings, or fears. Knowing how to respond to students’ concern is often difficult, but it becomes easier when we set aside the need to respond perfectly and only try our best to be the most helpful that we can be. When no other words come to mind, sometimes a touch, a pause, or offering a thoughtful response about the difficulty of the situation will at least show the student that you care.
  • Sometimes students may have an overwhelming fear that they are unable to put into words, and you may need to express it for them. This relates back to the previous point as well. For instance, if students are talking about a child who loses his mother during a flood, you might want to say to students, "You may be scared that something will happen to your family member too. But we are all safe and the flood waters are leaving, so we are going to make it out of this flood.”
  • Respect students’ wishes not to talk until ready. Recovery takes place along predictable stages of grief and we need to respect this journey as it is individual for everyone.
  • Help students’ to put the events of the disaster in perspective by giving them information about the disaster and tragedy in ways that match again their level of development and understanding. Sometimes simply having the facts can facilitate progress towards recovery best.

Some of this material is based on the following pdf.

Web Links

This 3-page article provided by SAMHSA titled Tips for Supporting Children During Times of War: A Guide for Teachers explores how to talk to children about war and how to help children access their coping abilities.

This website from HealthInSchools.org offers a wealth of resources regarding children’s mental health and how schools can support and encourage healthy mental lives in children.

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.