As school life settles back into a routine following the start of year activities, teachers may be noticing some changes in behaviour from children who were affected by this summer’s bushfires.
Whilst many children may cope and recover well from their experiences during the fires, for others the disruption and trauma that they experienced may cause feelings of fear or sadness, clinginess, sleep and behavioural problems, or difficulty concentrating.
Recent research has shown that some children exposed to severe trauma and disaster are at risk of falling behind in the classroom, even years later. Schools can play a vital role after a disaster, in supporting both the emotional recovery of students, and their academic progress.
Children will react to trauma in different ways
Common issues among young children include sleep problems, irritability, anxiety, tantrums, impaired memory and concentration, and hypervigilance. Older children might engage in risky behaviours and substance abuse.
Such changes in the immediate aftermath of a disaster are common and to be expected, however, if they persist beyond a few weeks, they can begin to interfere with the child’s learning and wellbeing. Risk factors for problems persisting in children can include the age at which the trauma occurred, chronic health and mental health problems, parental health and wellbeing, and the support received from family members and the school community.
Cognitive difficulties such as poor attention, concentration and memory, or regression in language skills can also develop in some children. These cognitive difficulties can be secondary to a mental health issue, but they can also arise as a direct result of neurobiological changes in the brain caused by exposure to a severe traumatic event. It is important to be aware that the neurobiological impacts on cognition may not manifest immediately. A study of the long-term impacts of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, conducted by researchers at the University of Melbourne and Phoenix Australia, demonstrated that children exposed to severe trauma and disaster are at risk of falling behind in the classroom, even years later.
In particular, reading and maths were the areas in which children were found to be lagging behind their peers. Jane Nursey, clinical neuropsychologist at Phoenix Australia, explains that, “Trauma especially affects the cognitive skills that underlie the development of reading and numeracy, such as working memory and speed of processing, as well as higher level executive skills like planning. If children fall behind in these cognitively demanding academic tasks in their first years of school, it can be very difficult for them to catch up without remedial intervention.
“Trauma changes the brain’s developmental processes and in turn these changes can adversely impact all areas of a child’s development – and often these impacts might not be apparent until some years down the track,” Jane adds.
How does the impact of trauma show up in the classroom?
Janette Cook was the principal of Middle Kinglake Primary School for five years following the Black Saturday bushfires. She says that initially, teachers may not notice any changes in their students’ behaviour, but clinginess, withdrawal, lack of concentration, or ‘acting out’ might emerge.
Over time, other effects may become obvious – there may be some regression, such as bed wetting, or they may have difficulty expressing themselves as well as they had previously.
Janette says that, “Over the period of time from 2010 to 2012 our school data showed that our Foundation students were starting school with lower levels of oral language than previous cohorts. This may have been a product of the disruption to their exposure to rich language experiences.” Less developed oral language skills have implications for academic progress as well as social progress. Students who have difficulty expressing themselves might have difficulties communicating in the classroom setting as well as in the playground, and this can lead to friendship upsets.
The most important advice that Janette can give to schools is to take a whole-school approach to helping children, teachers and parents recover from their experiences this summer. “Relationships are fundamental – we all look for support from the people that we trust. Look out for each other and support each other. Keep open communication between the school and the parents – the school may not know what a child is going through, and on the other hand, teachers may see behaviour changes that the parents are unaware of. Listen to each other, and create opportunities for the community to come together.”
In the classroom, teachers should be aware that different things will be triggers for different children – one child may become unusually anxious on a windy day, another may become distressed reading a story about an injured pet.
How teachers can help children and themselves
Teachers can help children by giving them the language to express how they are feeling – to help them differentiate their emotions. While teachers are not therapists, providing opportunities for children to express their feelings through art, writing, or performing arts activities can assist in the expression of feelings.
Maintaining routines is helpful for anyone whose life has suffered major disruption – routines help to keep anxiety at bay and give structure to the day.
Of course there will also be teachers who have been affected by the bushfires, and they may need extra support from the school. Whether personally affected or not, teachers should practise good self-care – it can become easy to work extra-long hours to respond to the additional needs in the school. In the long term this might lead to overtiredness and stress. Simple self-care techniques include getting enough sleep, eating well, making time for exercise and relaxation, using stress management techniques, and asking for support when needed.
Most people are resilient in the face of trauma and disaster in their lives. With good support from communities, such as schools, most children and adults will come through the experience and get back to life-as-usual – even if that life looks a little different to before the bushfires.
As hubs within the broader community, schools play a vital role in assisting students and the community to recover after a disaster. Below are listed some resources which will help schools to successfully fulfil this role.
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Primary Health Networks (PHNs)
- Mental health counselling hotlines:
Resources for teachers and parents
- www.phoenixaustralia.org/bushfires – Includes tip sheets on helping children after a disaster, and general information about recovery from trauma
- www.artshealthnetwork.com.au/advice-for-principals-and-teachers – Tip sheets specifically for principals and teachers
- https://earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au – Tip sheets, webinars, e-learning and resources