University of Illinois Extension
Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Children, Stress, and Natural Disasters
A Guide for Teachers

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers can help children following a disaster by understanding what children may have experienced, recognizing signs of distress, and knowing when to refer children for additional help. They can also help children cope with difficult situations by providing an atmosphere of safety, security, and support, conducting classroom activities that may facilitate coping, and by taking care of themselves.

Providing Safety, Security, and Support

In times of uncertainty, children need someone, someplace, or something they can rely on for safety, security, and fulfillment. They need a place where they know that they matter and what they do matters; where their actions have consequences; where they can depend on people and count on things happening in predictable ways. Teachers can provide this kind of atmosphere by:

  • Being willing to listen and respond to verbal and nonverbal cues
  • Noticing and acknowledging things about children, keeping track of and commenting on what's going on in their lives
  • Giving children extra reassurance, support, and encouragement
  • Providing structure, stability, and predictability. Having predictable routines, clear expectations, consistent rules, and immediate feedback

Children might need extra understanding and patience, but this does not mean excessively "coddling" children and "letting them get away with murder". In fact, teachers should maintain their expectations for behavior and performance and should not be afraid of using discipline. At the same time, however, they should be prepared to provide extra support and encouragement.

Let children talk about experiences and express fears and concerns.Let them know that it is OK and quite natural to feel angry, sad, or frightened, and that talking about these feelings will make them feel better. You might share your own feelings. Activities that let them hear how others feel will help them realize that their feelings are not bad or unusual.

Providing Classroom Activities that Facilitate Coping

There are some things that you can do in the classroom to help children cope with difficulties. A companion guide, School Activities for Children suggests activities that may help children prepare for or cope with disasters. These suggestions include:

  • Providing activities that encourage children to share experiences and express feelings of fear or concern
  • Conducting study projects or multidisciplinary units focused on learning about disasters. Students can learn and apply math, science, and language skills in exploring the causes and consequences of natural disasters.
  • Introducing units on disaster preparedness or health and safety to give students a sense of competence, confidence, and control in being able to handle disasters in the future
  • Encouraging service projects that provide students with an opportunity to contribute to their family, school, and community.

Taking Care of Yourself

You may find that helping affected children creates stresses for you as well. You may also be dealing with disaster-related difficulties in your own life. It's important for you to recognize your own stresses, strains, and difficulties. You will be a greater help to children (and your colleagues) if you can acknowledge your own experiences and feelings.

  • Acknowledge your own feelings of anger, frustration, fear, sadness, or helplessness
  • Talk to someone (friends, relatives, or colleagues) about what you are going through. You might also consider joining (or starting) a support group for others who may be going through something similar
  • Become aware of how you usually cope with stress
  • Consciously try to manage stress by using relaxation techniques, exercise, "time off" for fun or enjoyable activities, and looking for the positive consequences of the situation.
  • Don't be afraid to seek "professional" help. Therapists and counselors can be very helpful during tough times, even if you don't think you have "serious" problems.

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