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  • Writer's pictureJanis Aston

The Elephant in the Room

What to do when a disaster strikes your school community?

I am certainly not a psychologist but I do know children. And 70+ years here on earth have hopefully given me a little wisdom. It has definitely given me a wealth of experiences, both good and challenging. 

2020 Hit Us HARD

Every day I read the Facebook posts of teachers struggling with the challenges and fears of social distancing while teaching in-building during the pandemic. Then there are posts about the frustrations of teaching virtually on Zoom and other platforms—poor internet connections, children who do not have service or devices, etc. There have also been the many posts on Facebook this year about what are teachers to do when they return to their classrooms after the devastation of hurricanes, tornados, massive fires, and floods, when their schools have been physically torn apart and destroyed. The newsfeed each day is heartbreaking and leaves us numb. I've tried to respond to many of these but I just saw others today and felt compelled to share a few thoughts.

I think one of the biggest questions is—Should teachers address and acknowledge what has happened and is still happening or just try to quickly move past it and get the students back into their routine. While both of these strategies have merit, I lean toward letting students parents, teachers, and admin of all ages express and share their feelings. For however long that may take.

Face it head on

By all means address it. Chances are, the children have not been sheltered from the news at home. And even if they have not been bombarded by the media like adults have, they are perceptive and can see the concern on adults' faces while in whispered conversations. Your students may have been directly involved in either the pandemic or a natural disaster. Or both.

This has been a year of one thing after the other. Everyone is in overload. Students may have parents or relatives who are first responders, grandparents and other family whom they have not seen because of quarantines. Unemployment has taken its toll. So many variables and situations.

Our children are aware of what is going on around them.

When returning to school in-person, the students have not seen their friends in a very long time. They have not only been concerned about them, but they have also been worried about their teachers and other adults in the school. It has been a scary time and even the building will be different either due to social distancing or tornado/hurricane damage. When everyone returns to school, it's going to be a reunion of sorts. And everyone is going to want to talk and share. The relief will be profound.

And so will the confusion. School is not the same. And it may shut down again.

School is a second home to students. Teachers are even parent figures to the younger students especially. Many of the little ones actually think teachers live in that building. Parents have been dealing with so much that they may not have had time or opportunity to just let their children express what's going on in their minds.

This is a time when you have to drop your plans and meet the needs of your students. Let them talk, let them share, let them express their feelings. It will take time but they need to do this. If you don't they will internalize and those frightened feelings will be expressed in other ways at some point. Give them some space. And they'll let you know when they're ready to move on.

Just a little sidebar story. My husband was a middle school band teacher. Before retiring, he was in a motorcycle accident which resulted in the loss of his right leg. He wears a prosthetic leg. He talked with his students about what happened and let them ask questions. Kids are so great! The question asked most frequently was, "What kind of motorcycle were you riding?" LOL And then there's this one, "Will your foot grow back?" But finally one middle school girl raised her hand and said, "Mr. Aston, I'm tired of hearing 'bout that leg. Can we do band now?"

They will let you know when they are ready to move on!

Children are resilient.

Suggestions for activities

  • Allow students to have a "Share Time" every class until you feel this is no longer necessary. Be honest. Share your feelings. Keep it as positive as you can and also brief but allow them time to think and share. And then move to next activities in your lesson.

  • Play music and let them find a partner to share with. Groups of 3-4. Quiet time. 

  • Talk about what they need, what others may need, who needs cheering up?

  • Discuss ways to help each other; ways to help in the community. 

  • Let them play, take them outside on a sound walk. If dealing with the trauma after effects of hurricanes or tornados—What are the sounds they hear now compared to what they remember from the storms?

  • Draw pictures. Older students can create artwork such as sculptures, paintings, etc.

  • Journal. Encourage older students to keep a journal. Provide paper if they haven't been doing this in another class.

  • Create sound stories with instruments or body percussion. 

Make your classes age-appropriate and be sensitive to what they need. Let them direct as you gently guide them back into the routine. And getting back to that routine will be cathartic for everyone. Those fears of disaster and death (yes, they know what's happening with the virus) will raise their ugly head every time it rains, every time the wind blows, every time they hear the word, "virus," but, by allowing everyone the time and space to work through their feelings, teachers are helping students regain their confidence and trust that they are safe.

If you don't talk about it and let them get their feelings out now, it will be the elephant in the room for a long time.

We will get through this and back to normal . . . together.

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