Natural disasters and pandemics: Supporting student and teacher wellbeing after a crisis

By Professor Helen Cahill, Dr Babak Dadvand, Keren Shlezinger, Katherine Romei and Anne Farrelly

This report presents an overview of research outlining effective approaches to the promotion of student and staff wellbeing during periods of emergency and recovery.

In recent months, Australia has experienced a series of catastrophic events, including the 2019–2020 bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The twin economic and health crisis resulting from both events has led to concerns about the wellbeing of children and young people who have experienced unprecedented disruptions to everyday life and exposure to traumatic events.

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Executive summary

Teachers and schools often contribute as first responders in emergencies, and are adept at providing immediate care, despite themselves also being significantly affected by such emergencies. However, teachers often feel unsure about how best to provide psycho-educative support in the immediate aftermath and via longer- term recovery efforts.

This report presents an overview of research outlining effective approaches to the promotion of student and staff wellbeing during periods of emergency and recovery.

Exposure to emergencies such as bushfires and pandemics can be traumatic and cause major disruptions to families and to their livelihoods. Rates of family violence, sexual violence and mental health problems typically increase during and in the post emergency periods. During emergencies, women, girls and those already experiencing disadvantage are at much greater risk of violence and victimisation, and of the likelihood of developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emergencies disproportionately affect those already experiencing social or economic disadvantage, with poverty a major risk factor for increased risk of social, material and psychological harm. While most children and young people are resilient and recover well post emergency, some experience long-lasting mental health distress, including PTSD, anxiety disorders and depression. Common reactions that children and young people have include heightened anxiety even after the threat has gone, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating on learning, problems with regulating behaviour and expressing emotions, challenges in managing frustration and conflict, anxiety about the effects on their own and their family’s future, and difficulties in getting along with others.

Earlier models of research investigating the wellbeing of those affected by emergencies focused on understanding the effects of direct exposure to the traumatic events. However, more recent research shows that distress can also be caused and intensified by high exposure to media recounting traumatic events, material deprivation, exposure to high levels of parental distress, and family violence. These stressors may be sustained once the immediate emergency has passed, with continued negative impact on children’s wellbeing and learning.

Research demonstrates that schools can make a major contribution to the prevention of mental health problems and to the promotion of resilience post emergency. Participation in sustained school-based social and emotional learning programs can help to mitigate the mental health effects of exposure to traumatic events, and lead to reduced rates of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. They also help students to develop the key life skills needed to deal with the stressors and challenges of everyday life. These programs can also help schools fulfil their curriculum requirements in developing students’ personal and social capabilities, and benefit all students, regardless of their exposure to trauma.

A number of evidence-informed programs are available to guide teachers in adopting best practices both during the immediate aftermath of emergencies and in longer-term recovery. Schools can benefit from being made aware of existing teaching and wellbeing resources and services, and of the routine good practices they can continue to use effectively in the post emergency period.

Schools benefit from clear guidance about effective response strategies to adopt post emergency. The following advice is derived from a summary of the available international research investigating effective approaches to promoting student wellbeing post exposure to a range of emergencies, including natural disasters, armed conflict and epidemics.

 10 strategies to promote student and teacher wellbeing post emergency
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Key messages

  • Children and young people may be more psychologically vulnerable to the effects of emergency-related trauma than adults as they may have less-developed coping strategies and are dependent on others for social and emotional support at this developmentally sensitive period in their lives.
  • Rates of family violence and mental health problems tend to increase at the time of and following an emergency.
  • While most children and young people are resilient and will recover in time, many will experience symptoms of post traumatic stress after an emergency, and some may display mental health symptoms years beyond the initial event.
  • Children and young people already in more vulnerable circumstances are more adversely affected than others during emergencies and are at higher risk of developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Teachers are also affected by emergency-related trauma and need additional support following traumatic events, particularly when they face increased workloads and challenges in response to heightened needs among their students.
  • School leadership, and a culture of collegial support is crucial in addressing the professional and wellbeing needs of teachers as first responders in post emergency situations.
  • Schools play a crucial role in supporting young people and their communities post emergency as they can provide a place for connection, routine and care.
  • School-based social and emotional learning programs develop student resilience and school connectedness and contribute to longer-term recovery. They help to reduce the prevalence of PTSD, depression and anxiety post emergency.
  • Teachers benefit from professional learning which helps them understand how emergencies can affect student wellbeing, learning and behaviour, and which support them to provide social and emotional learning programs.
  • Many of the wellbeing practices routinely provided by schools continue to be important post emergency, including use of trauma-informed approaches, positive approaches to behaviour management and opportunities to connect and contribute.

Discussion points

  • Post trauma symptoms
    • Increased peer conflict or problems within social relationships
    • Behavioural changes (withdrawal, ‘acting out’ or behaving aggressively)
    • Preoccupation with re-enacting negative events in plays and stories
    • Difficulty concentrating on learning
    • Difficulty talking about traumatic events
    • Anxieties about safety even when threats are no longer evident
  • Effective social and emotional learning (SEL) classroom programs

    Several longitudinal studies have documented the way in which SEL initiatives provided in the primary years can have a lasting effect, promoting resilience and school connectedness well into the high school years. The most effective SEL programs are those that:

    • Contain explicit teaching of social and emotional skills
    • Are of greater intensity
    • Combine knowledge, social and life skills, critical thinking and negotiation skills
    • Are of longer duration
    • Are delivered within a broader wellbeing curriculum that incorporates a range of social, physical and mental health topics
    • Are taught by the classroom teacher, rather than external providers
    • Are taught within schools providing a positive relational climate.
  • Benefits of research-informed and well-implemented SEL programs
    • Improved mental wellbeing and reduced anxiety, depression and suicidality
    • Improved emotional regulation  and self-perception
    • Improved social and classroom behaviour
    • Reduced bullying and gender-based harassment
    • Reduced school drop-out
    • Improved connectedness to learning, to teachers and to school
    • Improved academic achievement  in the range of 5–11 per cent
    • Improved employability in rapidly changing workplaces and labour markets
    • Reduced prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder post exposure to emergency situations
  • Risk factors of ongoing psychological distress

    Risk factors associated with more severe or ongoing psychological distress after emergency situations may include:

    • Having feared for one’s life during the emergency
    • Displacement from home, or loss of significant pets and belongings
    • Previous history of trauma or pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities
    • A lack of family or social support during and after the emergency
    • Excessive exposure to media about the effects of the emergency
    • Lack of adequate caregiver support due to separation, parental mental health problems, and harsh parenting styles
    • Significant or multiple losses, including loss of family members or loved ones
    • Exposure to ongoing or repeated traumatic events over time, or exposure to sustained risk and disruption, such as when the threat is sustained or can recur
    • Pre-existing physical or cognitive disabilities
    • Ongoing disruptions such as not being able to return to school and housing insecurity
    • Exposure to family violence during or in the aftermath of the disaster
    • Living in poverty
  • General advice to guide teachers’ responses
    • Establish and maintain normal classroom routines
    • Build positive relationships between students and staff
    • Remain calm and optimistic
    • Convey a clear message that the threat/danger is over or will be over soon and that good things will continue to happen
    • Practise self-care and seek support for self, colleagues and students
    • Use trauma-informed practices to help students settle and focus
    • Provide structured but limited opportunities for voluntary talk, writing or drawing about what has happened
    • Avoid asking students to re- tell and dwell on the trauma, and encourage them to think of the strengths people and communities have used to respond well and to help each other
    • Share the positive coping strategies that people have or can use to help them deal with traumatic events
    • Provide space and time to focus on techniques for self-calming and emotional expression and regulation skills through mindfulness, circle time, relaxation activities, arts and non-competitive games and sports
    • Provide some activities just for fun or to lift the mood, such as via music and play
    • Anticipate situations which may trigger distress, such as alarms, hot and windy weather, fog or smoke, and reassure and inform students about what is happening
    • Use positive discipline strategies which favour heightened use of positive formative feedback and recognition of effort
    • Scaffold challenging or sustained learning tasks to foster a sense of moving forward
    • Arrange brain breaks during tasks requiring higher levels of concentration
    • Provide students with additional notice and reminders of changes to scheduled events or routines
    • Monitor students for symptoms of trauma or behaviour change over time, and refer as warranted.

    For further advice visit the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience website.


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