After being closed for over a week due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma, some Florida schools are attempting to return to normal operations. While the schools may be fully-functional, the teachers and students might not be. Educators should be properly equipped to handle basic first-aid for mental health care as many students will be in need of assistance. Here are a few potential problems that may happen in the classroom and some possible solutions:
- Shared Common Experience. Tragedies that effect entire communities, let alone those that change an entire state, are shared common experiences. It is very helpful and therapeutic for students and teachers to tell their own unique story of how the hurricane effected them. However, too much sharing could traumatize or re-traumatize students who had a mild experience compared to those whose loss was significant.
- Solution: Have a bellwork assignment (either written or drawn) asking students to share their experience with the hurricane. After completion, encourage students to voluntarily share their story. Ideally, the teacher would go first as an example. Limit the overall time to no more than 15 minutes as well as individual time to a couple of minutes. Because some students have a tendency to “one-up” each other, maintain a tight control on sharing the unnecessary extremes. Remember, this is not group therapy. However, the bellwork assignment is essential information for teachers who have students still without shelter, water, food, power, phone/cell service, transportation, and/or internet.
- Secondary Trauma. Many Floridians have extended family members in other parts of the state, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. While the student’s individual experience may not be as traumatic, their relatives and friends may not have done as well. This is a form of secondary trauma where the student doesn’t experience directly, instead they feel it indirectly. For sensitive people, this is equally traumatizing as having gone through it themselves.
- Solution: Avoid showing pictures of the hurricane damage to students unless the teacher is certain that no students have any extended family or friends in the most devastated areas. Talking about the storm is one matter while viewing videos or photos is an entirely different experience. Any regular assignments that involve trauma happening to others such as war, might also activate secondary trauma. Teachers should be sensitive to this issue and offer alternative assignments to students who seem to be experiencing additional stress.
- Increased Anxiety. Younger children and some teenagers have a difficult time discerning between a major storm like a hurricane and a smaller thunderstorm. Unfortunately, this is still the rainy season in Florida so there are and will be severe thunderstorms till the end of October. Even mild storms can increase anxiety when this was not an issue on the past. It is a form of hyper-vigilance where a student becomes highly sensitive to even the slightest indication of danger.
- Solution: When a person is in a hyper-vigilant state with increased anxiety, trying to tell them that everything is fine doesn’t work and can make things worse. Instead, normalize their experience by agreeing with the reason for the anxiety. Remind them that anxiety is good, it is a warning indicator that something is not right. It is normal for their warning light to be overactive now. In the future, it will settle down.
- Students in Shock. After a traumatic event, it is common for a person to be in a state of shock for a period of time. This is foggy-like confusion can last from weeks to months depending on the person. Children have a natural tendency to block out difficult situations so sometimes those who experienced significant damage will appear to be the most well adjusted. However, this only temporary and has a rubber-band effect usually when their environment has fully returned to normal.
- Solution: Set aside the bellwork assignments that reveal the most trauma. In a couple of months, these students may show signs of increased anger, anxiety, arguing, withdraw, and depression. Once discovered, refer these students to a safe coordinator or guidance counselor to get them the help they need to process their experience. Due to state of shock that some students are experiencing, many will have a difficult time diving right into schoolwork. It is good to go a bit slower for a few days to allow time to readjust before unleashing the week’s worth of missed assignments.
- Stages of Grief. Anytime there is a significant change in a person’s environment such as a death, divorce, move, or natural disaster, a person experiences the stages of grief. These stages are not done in order, especially when young children are involved. Rather, they are experienced in a ping-pong like fashion: one day it is one stage the next day it is something else. The stages are: denial (“It wasn’t that bad”), anger (“I’m mad at everyone”), bargaining (“Why didn’t this happened instead”), depression (“I can’t stop crying”), and acceptance (“I’m OK”).
- Solution: Knowing that nearly every student and teacher might experience the stages of grief at varying times, degrees, and durations, means extra grace needs to be extended to all. It is essential that teachers be aware of their own processing of grief first before trying to see it in their students. Most students are highly sensitive to changes in their teachers so this is the time for teachers to set an example of healthy processing of their own experience before assisting their students.
- Post-Hurricane Stress. Children and some teenagers are unable to identify stress in themselves. Usually stress in children presents itself in physical complaints, obsessive/repetitive behaviors, anger outbursts, problems sleeping, nightmares, loss of interest in fun activities, withdrawal from friends, and defiant behaviors. The big key here for teachers is to be observant of a shift in behavior from the previous month to now. Any dramatic changes are likely indications of increased stress due to the hurricane.
- Solution: It is important to remember that new changes in behavior are stress-related and not defining characteristic of the child. Children need to be taught how to handle and release stress properly. This could be as simple as having a box where children put in a writing or drawing about anything they want without consequence. Or creating a safe corner of the classroom where an anxious child can sit or stand. Or encouraging more physical activity (such as jumping jacks or going outdoors) to help release some steam. Again, it is important that teachers model proper stress management because sometimes this is the only place a child sees it done well.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is far too early to diagnose anyone with PTSD. The official diagnosis requires a passage of six months from the incident, ongoing anxiety/panic attacks, continued nightmares, random flashbacks, and mild to severe depression. Rather, panic disorder and adjustment disorder is very common now. Panic appears as heightened anxiety, mixed with intense fear, usually generating a freezing, fleeing, or fighting response. Adjustment disorder means a person is struggling with their new normal and experiences anxiety and depression due to the change in environment or circumstances.
- Solution: Do not diagnosis students. Rather, use this information to be aware of potential problems that might need to be addressed by a mental health professional. Children don’t know that they need help and usually are uncomfortable asking for it. Not addressing these issues early on could result in the activation of PTSD later. PTSD is a much more difficult recovery than panic or adjustment disorder. Teachers should reach out to parents, a safe coordinator, and/or guidance counselor if they see these symptoms in their students.
This article only covers the basic first-aid care of students experiencing post-hurricane stress and are not met to be a replacement for therapy. Therapy should not be done in classroom, it should be left for those trained in handling children and the disorders. However, teachers are frequently the first-line of support in helping students to fully recover from their post-hurricane stress and should be seen as a valuable asset in this process.