K-12 Schools

School Management of Serious Post-Disaster Stress ResponsesImage - schools

Healing and recovery from disasters is a process, not an event, and it is normal for this process to take some time. By creating an environment of open communication in which you try to connect with students’ experience of disasters, you can help them cope and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties. You can also educate yourself about normal traumatic and post-traumatic stress responses through information located throughout this website.

Find ways to emphasize a return to stability. When the disaster abates, return to previous schedules and maintain these for a time, even if some change in routine was planned, in order to provide a sense of security and comfort.

But teachers, administrators, and support personnel need also to be alert for more serious long-term disaster reactions, which are more severe than those experienced by most children. These might include:

  • persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event through intense recollections, dreams, flashbacks or hallucinations (“ghosts” of the original traumatic experience)
  • persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma (for example, refusal to go near windows, go outside, or watch television)
  • emotional blunting, in which students will demonstrate restricted feelings (being neither “too happy or too sad”)
  • diminished interest in usual activities (a formerly athletic student who refuses to participate in physical education, for example)
  • signs of increased arousal, such as sleep difficulties, irritability, hypervigilance, disturbances in concentration, or exaggerated startle response.

These responses may be signs of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress, all of which may look differently in children and adolescents than they do in adults, manifesting in the following ways:

In Preschoolers: as tantrums, physical complaints, brief periods of sadness, listlessness, or hyperactivity, lack of interest in activities, withdrawal.

In ages 5-11: as unusual and exaggerated fears, hyperactivity, conduct disorders (lying, stealing), refusal to attend school, refusal to leave parents, periods of sadness, vague anxiety or agitation, suicidal thoughts.

In Adolescents: as changes in appearance, withdrawal, fatigue, eating problems, substance abuse, risk-taking, sudden change in peer group, loss of interest, sleep problems, hostility, suicidal thoughts.

If you suspect a student is having extreme difficulties beyond his or her peers in responding to and recovering from the disaster:

  • Consult with the student’s parents or caregivers to begin a collaborative approach to helping his or her recovery.
  • Involve the school counselor or social worker, who may have special training and resources available to them in facilitation of these sorts of responses.
  • Suggest to the parents or caregivers that they have the student evaluated further by a qualified mental health professional.

Prevention and early detection of serious responses to disasters can help minimize the chance that they will be life-long struggles.

Some of this material is modified and adapted from this 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 better access their abilities to cope.

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

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