As Australia battles one of its worst bushfire disasters, Professor Marjory Ebbeck from the University of South Australia says the role of teachers will be critical for children who have been directly affected, or are experiencing uncertainty or trauma.
As fires continue to burn, the number of communities impacted by the current bushfire disaster is also rising.
“Teachers are one of the most trusted, reliable and safe adult figures to a child, beyond their immediate family. But, with the school term just around the corner, many teachers are now feeling underprepared,” said Professor Ebbeck.
“Some families will have suffered major loss and trauma – lives, homes and communities have been destroyed – in these instances, children’s trauma reactions may be presenting in disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, withdrawal from activities, and even aggression.”
Professor Ebbeck explained that in times of stress, children will often seek support from their significant adults, including teachers, to provide guidance – therefore, being prepared with the right information on hand is important.
For children who are struggling as a result of Australia’s bushfire disaster, her recommendations for teachers are:
- Contact families to assess what their individual situation is, how they can be supported and what may help their child. Regular contact with the family and about how their child is doing will also be important; teaching often extends beyond helping the child, to helping the family.
- Check that children are drinking and eating. Children affected by the fires or other trauma may not feel like eating, and they can become dehydrated if they do not drink enough fluids.
- Continue to observe children closely and work out an individual learning and support plan if needed. Children will differ in their responses to the fires and an adjusted plan may be beneficial for a time.
- Encourage children to talk about their emotions. When children feel safe, they’re more likely to express emotions. Understand that avoiding talking about a stressful topic is also normal for children.
- Show sensitivity to the needs of individual children. Help them understand that it is okay to feel frightened or angry. Follow the lead of the child and listen to them if they talk about their emotions.
- Give children opportunities to express their emotions through drawing, painting and other art forms such as modelling and collage work. Similarly, children may choose to play out their fears through dramatic play. For young children, this should be undirected with the child spontaneously playing out what is important to them. Privacy is important and creating makeshift cubby houses could help.
- For younger children, include books that deal with emotions in story time, then discuss the acceptance of emotions and ask whether the children have felt this way.
- Encourage children to play freely with their friends as this can help them create a sense of normalcy to release emotions and enjoy needed friendship.
For children suffering trauma, Professor Ebbeck explained it can take a long time for them to return to some form of wellbeing and optimism, with some students needing ongoing care.
“Sustained support is going to be essential for children and their families,” she said. “Australia’s teachers must be commended for the work that they do now, and in times of stress. These days, our teachers are so much more than an educator – they’re ‘educarers’, and so often a haven for children in an increasingly unpredictable world.”