In April the Institute took a call from Middle Kinglake Primary School teacher, Catherine James. Catherine’s school was destroyed on
Some of the Middle Kinglake families had been forced to relocate to other parts of the State. Catherine felt that in their schools far
away from bushfire affected areas, students still needed the support of their new communities. She suggested that an article on students
affected by trauma (bushfire and other trauma) could help teachers address their needs.
We would like to thank Catherine for her suggestion and hope the article prepared for us by Dr Simon Crisp of Monash University will
be helpful to teachers.
Dr Simon Crisp writes...
In recent months, the entire community has sadly become aware of the human toll from disasters such as the Black Saturday bushfires.
Teachers and school communities have had to face a complex, often daunting task of responding to the initial needs of children and
teenagers (and colleagues) who have been directly or indirectly affected. Now, as time goes on, a less obvious but very difficult
challenge emerges – being able to understand what the effects might be longer-term, in the months or years ahead.
Initial psychological effects and broader bio-psycho-social impacts
Psychological effects of disaster can be quite individualised, but in the short-term, disruptive biological, psychological and social
effects are the norm. Initially, affected children begin to cognitively and emotionally process events and recover from a hyper-aroused,
biologically driven survival response.
Sleep problems, nightmares, concentration and memory problems, emotional fluctuations and impulsivity, heightened startle responses
and avoidance of reminders of the trauma (such as fire or sirens) are common.
In young children, regressive behaviour and lowered social performance are to be expected. These are normal responses to an abnormal
experience and in the majority of cases usually last for just days, weeks or less commonly months following a single event.
Traumatic grief and loss
Of course, there may be substantial material as well as social loss from a large scale disaster. Shock, grief and prolonged distress
can be immense. Such cognitive and emotional turmoil can so overwhelm a child’s coping skills that serious on-going conditions such as
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develop.
Further complicating the picture, pre-existing psychological or behavioural disorders may also become exacerbated.
For instance, a young person may have a relapse in depressive symptoms with accompanying suicidal thoughts, or their
abuse of substances may intensify.
Additionally, loss of family members, parents and significant others requires enormous practical and psychological adjustment. Such a
profound interruption to normalcy can inhibit or derail normal psychological and social development. So, the child who is learning to
be independent suddenly becomes clingy to care-givers, and the teen who was always responsible becomes reckless and abandons hope
for the future.
The tricky issue here is that these changes can occur sometime after the disaster, and such behaviour may be misunderstood, and the
link to the trauma missed. Serious conditions such as PTSD may go untreated, or even mistreated.
Ongoing post-trauma symptoms as well as other psychological symptoms such as depression can have major implications for a child’s
learning. Cognitive deficits such as concentration and attention difficulties, memory encoding and retrieval problems, emotional
instability and disrupted information processing are common.
In general, the most helpful intervention is to return life back to what it was, as much as possible. Reinstating familiar and
reassuring routines, rituals and activities helps instil a sense of security and mobilise a child’s coping resources. In particular,
re-establishing social networks is vital.
Reaffirming relationships, providing natural opportunities for people to express and receive support, and allowing choice can reduce anxiety.
In the case where a child’s social supports have been lost, encouraging the child to draw on extended family or community will be
important for him or her to feel safe enough to begin to grieve and then to start looking forward.
Teachers also play a key role in noticing and reinforcing a child’s effective coping, initiative or altruistic behaviour and their
ability to master and manage this difficult and often long recovery phase.
Be a safety net
Teachers have a unique opportunity to monitor and detect any possible signs of PTSD or exacerbated psychological disorder in the months
or years following a major disaster. To feel prepared, teachers should familiarise themselves with the types of symptoms seen in
traumatised children. The Australian Psychological Society or the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network are
both authoritative sources of much online information relevant for teachers.
While it is often hard to predict who, a minority of children who have experienced a major traumatic event will develop PTSD in the
months following. It is not uncommon for serious and debilitating PTSD to go undiagnosed for years. Teachers are often the bridge
between undetected problems that may be severely affecting a young person’s functioning, and getting professional assistance.
Being informed and vigilant is critical. Be confident to raise your concerns with colleagues or parents, or if appropriate
with the student themselves.
This psychological first response with the student doesn’t have to be executed perfectly but is better attempted than not.
Fortunately, treatments for PTSD are well developed and generally effective. However, getting the student the professional help
they might need can depend on how well teachers can engage the young person or their parents around their concerns. Being knowledgeable
about PTSD symptoms and what professional options there are may make all the difference.
Australian Psychological Society http://www.psychology.org.au/bushfires
Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network
Dr Simon Crisp, Clinical Child, Adolescent & Family Psychologist, Adjunct Lecturer, Monash University, School of Psychology,
Psychiatry & Psychological Medicine http://www.neopsychology.com.au,