The past few months have seen an array of extreme weather events, from floods to hurricanes to wildfires, and countless communities have faced physical and emotional devastation. For children who go to school, there is another layer to this trauma: the school.
What happens to students when natural disasters cause classes to be canceled for long periods or schools to be destroyed? What is it like to return to school while still affected by an extreme weather event and how does school disruption affect children’s well-being? experts explain.
In recent months, schools across the US have been impacted by extreme weather conditions and poor air quality, including:
Floods in Ohio: In northeast Ohio, several schools were forced to close in late August due to damage from high winds and rain. Some schools had power problems or lost electricity.
Hurricane Idalia: In the Tampa Bay area, schools were closed for some time due to flooding and safety issues. Schools in South Carolina closed earlier or also had distance learning days.
Ohio train derailment: Although not necessarily a natural disaster, a train carrying dangerous goods derails in East Palestine, Ohio. With a mushroom cloud rising over the area and raising safety and air quality concerns, families were ordered to evacuate, meaning the children missed school.
Wildfires on Maui: At least 115 people have died in the wildfires that raged in Lahaina, Hawaii. In addition, several schools, houses and buildings were destroyed or damaged. With the many implications this is bringing – from families relocating to children feeling too traumatized to come back – some schools are unsure how to move forward.
What experts say about school disruption
School suspensions are a necessary precaution, either to allow children to come home and take safety measures before extreme weather conditions, or to protect them from unsafe places afterwards. But when these disorders drag on, they can affect other areas of life as well.
“Kids need routine and a sense of security,” he says Kimberly Vered Shashouaa licensed clinical social worker and therapist who has worked with children following hurricanes and other disasters.
Without it, kids could feel insecure, adds Matthew Schubert, mental health consultant and owner of Gem State Wellness. “When their school life is disrupted by natural disasters or illness, they experience a loss of that structure and can struggle with feelings of aimlessness from not being able to attend to their usual responsibilities,” he tells Yahoo Life.
School disruption can also lead to social setbacks. “Schools are more than just academic institutions,” notes Alex Anderson-Kahl, school psychologist and founder of the blog Healing Little Hearts. “They are key social hubs where children can bond and socialize.”
Research following pandemic-related school closures has shown prolonged disruption and a lack of socialization decrease a child’s ability to practice social skills.
Why returning to school can also be complicated
Disruption can take its toll, but it’s important to remember that students may also have mixed feelings about returning to school after a devastating extreme weather event. Here’s why.
Being surrounded by fears is a trigger
While going to school can increase feelings of normalcy, it can also fuel anxiety. “Some kids may be afraid they won’t see their parents after school,” Shashoua says. “Other kids might be triggered by memories, like the rumble of a truck after an earthquake or a drizzle after a hurricane.”
Add the fact that Teachers already have enough to do, and the situation becomes even more difficult. “Teachers are often unable to deal with multiple children facing trauma reactions, especially when there are lesson plans that need to be implemented,” notes Shashoua. By doing this, she says, children may learn to switch off and withdraw, which means they can’t process their feelings.
Experience sadness and disorientation
Students are still struggling with the aftermath of the catastrophe. “Beyond the immediate trauma, there is the grief associated with the loss of personal belongings, home, or the familiar surroundings of their school,” says Anderson-Kahl. He adds that all of this loss and change can be confusing and increase feelings of insecurity and stress.
The inability to fully engage
Feeling safe and protected are basic needs that must be met before people have time to worry about anything else, like passing a math test. These natural disasters – which may require moving to makeshift shelters or fuel new fears about environmental hazards – are setting people back.
“If these needs are not met due to the consequences of extreme weather conditions, children will not be able to overcome the anxiety and fear of leaving these needs unmet,” says Schubert. “They will not be able to engage in other areas of life until safety and security are no longer their primary concerns.”
In other words, even if they are physically at school, they may not be there mentally – affecting their ability to learn.
How can parents help?
According to Anderson-Kahl, parents play a critical role in mitigating these mental health effects. Here are some ways they can get involved.
Interact with children in fun and meaningful ways
A general tip: spend time with your children. Think how you can combine fun, comfort and emotional support. “A lot of kids express themselves through art and play,” says Shashoua. “Get them on the floor to play or draw and ask them how they feel.”
After you start the conversation, listen and validate what they say. “By encouraging their children to share their feelings and actively listening to them, parents can provide much-needed reassurance and support,” says Anderson-Kahl.
Model healthy coping behaviors
Children notice more than you might think. “Parents can play a crucial role by showing through their own behavior how they can deal with these disorders,” says Schubert. He explains that during times of stress, children are likely to look out for their parents and behave similarly.
Natural disasters highlight the need for preparedness. “Being informed and prepared for future events, discussing safety procedures, and making sure children are aware of safety plans can also be empowering,” notes Anderson-Kahl.
It also helps parents to know how to talk to children about extreme weather conditions, whether it’s a local event or a hurricane on the other side of the world.
Be compassionate and understanding when faced with physical problems
If bedwetting associated with anxiety becomes a problem after a stressful event, try to be patient. “It’s normal for kids to have stress and anxiety in their bodies,” adds Shashoua. “Stomach problems, trouble going to the toilet, and non-specific physical symptoms are normal.” In such situations, she recommends giving children attention, care, and time to rest.
Establish new routines
While change can be uncomfortable, it can also be an opportunity to establish a new “normal.” This can be especially helpful when feeling futile. If the school is closed indefinitely, it may mean trying to structure the day for reading or other classes.
“Parents can be effective in helping children cope with disorders by introducing new routines and new expectations, thereby fostering a new sense of purpose and value in children,” says Schubert.
Find support from experts and the community
Remember: no parent has to do this alone. “The broader community can provide invaluable support,” says Anderson-Kahl. He recommends professional counseling, organized group activities, community rebuilding efforts, and shared resources.
Students may also want to give back to develop a sense of empowerment. “Empowering children to be a part of recovery and recovery efforts, whether through community cleanups or fundraisers, can also help them process their experiences positively,” he adds.
Ultimately, the toll a natural disaster takes on students and their families cannot be ignored.
“While the physical devastation of extreme weather events is evident, the psychological toll, particularly in children, can still linger,” Anderson-Kahl points out. “It is imperative for everyone involved, from parents to educators to communities, to recognize and address these challenges to ensure children receive the support they need during such trying times.”