Helping Students Cope with Trauma after a Disaster
Similar to adults, students are just as likely to encounter trauma either through personal experience or indirect knowledge of disasters that have occurred. These traumatic events can include the death of a family member, classmate, or teacher, violent event and a natural disaster. Unlike adults, however, students cope with trauma differently and often experience grief or symptoms of trauma at different time periods.1,2,4 Trauma experienced from a disaster manifests in different ways across various age groups and can range from feelings of fear, shock, anxiety, depression, anger, denial, loss of sleep, dissociative behavior, substance abuse, and even physical stress.1,2,3
“Unlike adults, however, students cope with trauma differently and often experience grief or symptoms of trauma at different time periods.”
Grief that is experienced by a traumatic event is part of a normal coping process and involves four distinct phases: (1) numbing, (2) yearning and searching, (3) disorganization, and (4) reorganization.2 The first phase, numbing, involves the initial reaction to the disaster and includes feelings of shock or denial. The second phase, yearning and searching, begins soon after the disaster and can last several days. At this time, the student may exhibit physical or psychological symptoms (e.g., insomnia, anger, headaches, lack of appetite). Over the next few weeks or months the student will move through disorganization. In this phase the student will question (e.g., “Why did this happen at my school”) and bargain the event (e.g., “If I had done __ this may have been avoided”).2 The final phase, reorganization, occurs after several months to years. In this phase the student accepts that the disaster occurred and moves forward with his/her life.2 Although often perceived as resilient, youth sometimes find it difficult to cope appropriately with the emotional strains that are indicative of experienced trauma. It is essential that educators and parents are proactive toward identifying and addressing these symptoms, which often go unnoticed.
Identifying Signs of Trauma among Various Age Groups
The signs of emotional distress resulting from a traumatic event can vary between preschool children (1-5 years old), early childhood (6-11 years old) and adolescents (12-18 years old).2,4 For the most part, many signs of trauma diminish after several weeks following a disaster, and are a part of a normal reaction process to a traumatic event.2 For preschool children, reactions following a disaster can include reverted behaviors such as bed wetting, fear of the dark, speech difficulties, separation issues, confusion, and physical complaints.1,2,4
“For the most part, many signs of trauma diminish after several weeks following a disaster, and are a part of a normal reaction process to a traumatic event.”
While children in the early childhood phase (6-11 years old) experience some of the symptoms of their younger counterparts, they can also display aggressive behaviors either at home or school, social isolation (i.e., stop spending time with friends), eating difficulties, avoidance of school work, and attention-seeking.2,4
Although adolescents (12-18 years of age) often exhibit a better understanding of disasters that occur around them, they remain just as vulnerable to the emotional impact that follows a disaster.2 This age group already is accompanied by an ability to think abstractly and hypothetically in terms of trauma and death. While this ability does not preclude adolescents from emotional vulnerability, it does allow for deeper feelings following a disaster. Adolescents will experience symptoms of trauma including depression, apathy, psychosomatic symptoms, and an overall numbing effect.2
“Grieving is not a race, nor is it a predictable experience – it is as unique as each and every one of us.”
– Corrie Sirota, author, LCSW
How educators and parents can help
Once educators and parents recognize the symptoms of trauma there are several interventions that can help students cope with this difficult time in their life. Just as trauma symptoms fluctuate between age groups, so do certain age appropriate interventions. Preschool children have not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to understand and manage trauma associated with a disaster. Therefore, this age group displays their responses based on how surrounding adults react to the situation. Following a disaster, the child will not be able to articulate how they feel. Instead of attempting to have the child verbalize feelings, it is advised that play-based activities be incorporated to parse out emotions (i.e., utilize painting, clay sculpting, drawing, or other age appropriate activities).2
Childhood aged students (ages 6 through 11) have developed more advanced cognitive skills than preschool aged children. Certain activities, however, may help this age group express their feelings more effectively than candid conversations about the disaster. For instance, engaging in play sessions, having the child paint and/or draw their feelings, writing in a journal, or even participating in reading and discussing relevant stories may be beneficial. Of these, drawing is considered to be one of the most effective activities. As an educator or parent, have the child draw what was scary and good about a particular event. Once the drawing or painting is complete ask the child to describe the image. Remember to never judge or blame a child for how they react to a disaster.2
Adolescents have stronger cognitive abilities in comparison to younger preschool and childhood aged children. This means students in this group are capable of abstract thinking in regards to injuries, death, and other losses pertaining to a disaster. At this age, group discussions among students can be very beneficial. Students should be encouraged to talk about their feelings and understand it is okay if they do not have all the answers. The most important thing is to be honest. It is okay to say “I don't know” if asked a question by a student. Furthermore, students in this age group can be reassured through statements such as “It's okay to have the feelings that you have today” or “It's okay not to be okay in this situation”. Employ relaxation techniques to help the students feel secure (e.g., deep breathing, listening to music).2
“The most important thing is to be honest. It is okay to say “I don't know” if asked a question by a student.”
Crisis Response Team
When several students are impacted by a disaster, the necessary response can be more complex. In situations like these (e.g., school shooting, suicide, and tornado) schools with a collaborative crisis response team are better equipped to directly help students through a crisis. A Crisis Response Team works together to ensure students receive the emotional and physical support necessary to move forward following a traumatic event. The crisis response team should include individuals such as the principal, assistant principal, school psychologist, social worker, nurse, counselor, teachers, and security personnel.2
“A Crisis Response Team works together to ensure students receive the emotional and physical support necessary to move forward following a traumatic event.”
Each member of the team brings in specialized training and abilities to effectively help students. The principal leads the team, addresses family members, and functions as the liaison between the school, superintendent, and district administration. The Vice Principal assists the Principal by serving as a liaison between the support staff and the Principal. Additionally, the vice principal is able to take charge of the Crisis Response Team in the principal's absence. The other members' roles are related to their normal job functions. The psychologist, social worker, and counselor are generally charged with maintaining the emotional well-being of those exposed to the crisis. This includes coping mechanisms, screenings, and group sessions. The teachers that are chosen to be on the team act as a liaison between the team and the faculty. Further, the teachers can refer students who appear in need of additional emotional support. The nurse and security personnel perform their normal job functions of assisting the injured and maintaining a safe environment.2
Additionally, the team is responsible for informing parents and guardians of developments on their campus. For example, the principal may dispatch a letter to guardians informing them a student has passed away. The letter could inform the guardians about potential signs of emotional trauma to look for in their child and whom to contact should they uncover signs of trauma. Every Crisis Response Team will be comprised of different members depending on the school's available staff; however, efforts should be made to ensure the team is well rounded so it is capable of effectively assisting students in need.
“There is no correct answer or roadmap to how a student will grieve or cope with a disaster. The best approach is to be supportive of the child and exhibit unwavering warmth and honesty.”
It is important to understand that every child, regardless of age, will advance through the healing process at different rates. Educators and parents should be aware of the signs associated with trauma in order to help facilitate this process. There is no correct answer or roadmap to how a student will grieve or cope with a disaster. The best approach is to be supportive of the child and exhibit unwavering warmth and honesty. Make sure that the student is not lectured about how he or she should feel; rather, allow the student to express him or herself openly throughout this process.
1Goodman, R., Cohen, J., Epstein, C., Kliethermes, M., Layne, C., Macy, R., & Ward-Wimmer, D. (2004). Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials for Parents. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved from rems.ed.gov/docs/SAMHSA_ChildhoodTraumaticGriefForParents.pdf
2Lerner, M., Volpe, J., & Lindell, B. (2003). A practical guide for crisis response in our schools. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.
3Speier, A., & Nordboe, D. (2005). Psychosocial issues for children and adolescents in disasters. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS No. ADM86-1070R (Revised).
4Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). (2012). Tips for talking with and helping children and youth cope after a disaster or traumatic event. Retrieved from rems.ed.gov/docs/SAMHSA_TipsTalkingChildrenYouthTraumaticEvents.pdf