Every year across the country, Fall typically marks the beginning of the school year. According to the U.S. Department of Education statistics, about 55 million students were expected to start elementary and secondary school at either a public or private school (NCES, 2017). During this time, teachers and students are busy engaging in activities to create a positive school climate that set the tone for the remainder of their school year. However, for schools in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, California, Oregon, and U.S. Virgin Islands this year the scenario has been completely different; they are trying to rebuild their lives after a series of catastrophic natural disasters destroyed their homes, schools, and communities. Students from these communities are experiencing school closures and temporary or long-term enrollment in new schools away from their friends, and in some cases family members.
In the wake of a natural disaster, the closure of schools and interruptions of routines can have long term effects on the mental health of students (Save the Children, 2014). While all survivors of natural disasters experience trauma and adversity, survivors from low-income communities are at greater risk of long term mental and physical effects (Platt Boustan et al, 2017). Schools can play a key role in helping survivors recover and gain resilience by creating a welcoming environment for displaced students and serving as advocates for schools and communities affected by the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires.
What you can do to aid students impacted by the 2017 natural disasters?
Schools play a key role in helping children and adolescents feel a sense of stability and normalcy. Research shows that children feel relief after a crisis through a return to safe and regular routines, comforting and nurturing interactions, a sense of physical safety, and opportunities to express their feelings and concerns (Dukes et al, 2017; Save the Children, 2014).
Examples of practices that schools and classrooms use to create a safe and supportive learning environment that fosters resilience and recovery include the following:
- Assisting students and parents in the enrollment process and accessing required materials, such as books and uniforms.
- Providing one-on-one counseling to students impacted by the hurricanes or wildfires through the school counselor (Jaycox et. al., 2007).
- Educating and providing information to staff and parents on how to identify students’ behavioral reactions to traumatic events. For more information on resources and information on recovery after a hurricane, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
- Educating staff and families displaced by the natural disasters on the protections under the federal McKinney-Vento Act that support homeless students. For more information on the protections under the McKinney-Vento Act visit the National Center for Homeless Education.
- Integrating new students into daily routines and learning activities.
- Listening and being empathic with students as they discuss their concerns regarding the hurricane and its impact on their lives. For more information on how to be empathetic, watch the short video, on sympathy vs. empathy.
- Paying attention to students’ behaviors that may show signs of distress and seeking help from school counselors or other mental health professionals (SAMHSA, 2000).
How can you talk about the 2017 natural disasters in your classroom?
To support students following a natural disaster, such as the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires, unaffected communities can welcome students from impacted areas and create a safe and supportive learning environment for them. In fact, many districts across the country have already started!
There are several ways that your classroom can support survivors of the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires. Even if your school or classroom is not hosting any displaced students, you can promote solidarity and empathy by discussing the events. There are various ways for your students to get involved in the recovery efforts. Some examples include organizing a fundraiser for donations or supplies to relief agencies; teaching students how to research credible information and news coverage and locate trustworthy organizations that are assisting communities impacted by the natural disasters; and having students write letters of support to students at the schools impacted by the hurricanes and wildfires. Additional information on ways to get involved can be found in The New York Times article, Teaching Hurricane Harvey: Ideas and Resources that provides guidance on designing lesson plans and classroom activities. Additionally, the National Association of School Psychologists have created a Helping Children After a Wildfire: Tips for Parents and Teachers webpage listing resources and guidance on supporting wildfire survivors.
If your students or colleagues know survivors impacted by the storms who are unable to access help, consider reviewing the applications and services as a group on DisasterAssistance.gov. Additional resources include:
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990 Or Text TalkWithUs to 66746
- TTY for Deaf/Hearing Impaired: 1-800-846-8517
- Spanish-speakers text messaging: Háblanos to 66746