Home / Psychology  / How Teachers and Caregivers Can Help Children After a Natural Disaster

Students writing tips on a whiteboard

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

 

Many teachers and students in the Houston and surrounding areas are only just beginning to return to school in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For some, schools will remain closed, and students are being redirected to other locations. Many families lost their homes; some lost their livelihoods. Meanwhile, families and educators in Florida are just beginning to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma.

The effects of natural disasters impact the lives and the psyches of students, and caregivers and teachers often struggle with how to respond.

Erin Rodriguez, an educational psychology assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education studies stress and coping in children. Here, she provides tips to caregivers and teachers to consider for helping children following a natural disaster.

Tips for Caregivers:

  • Emotional and behavioral difficulties following a natural disaster are not uncommon. Children may have symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression, as well as conduct problems (i.e., “acting out” behaviors).

 

  • Children may also experience academic and social difficulties. These problems may be related to emotional difficulties, but can also result from disruptions in schooling and daily activities due to the disaster.

 

  • Children who have greater access to social support, through parents, family members, teachers, friends, and other supportive adults, are more likely to show resilience in the long term.

 

  • Following a disaster, adults should provide ways for children to return to daily routines and activities as much as possible, including school and extracurricular activities. Returning to these activities can reduce the risk of ongoing disruptions and provide multiple avenues for social support.

 

  • Some children are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties following a disaster. This risk is increased if they experienced more immediate threats (e.g., threats to life) during the disaster, face ongoing stressors (e.g., losing their home/relocation) from the disaster, and if their parents/caregivers also experience emotional difficulties from the disaster.

 

  • While symptoms can get better for some children over time, children with increased risk may experience more severe and lasting difficulties. These children can benefit from evidence-based treatments, including treatments that use cognitive-behavioral strategies. Evidence-based treatments are particularly effective when children can access them within the first few months following the disaster.

 

Head shot of Dr. Erin Rodriguez.

Erin Rodriguez – Assistant Professor

Says Rodriguez, “After a natural disaster, adults sometimes assume kids are resilient, but that may not always be the case. If a parent or teacher notices signs of anxiety, or mood or behavior changes in the weeks or months after a disaster, they should seek out mental health professionals who can assess whether treatment is needed. The good news is that there’s strong research supporting the benefits of early intervention for kids who need it.”

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