Making sure students are both physically and emotionally safe on the best of days can be a full time job for teachers and school leaders. It can become even more challenging when a natural disaster or emergency situation strikes and school is disrupted, communities become scattered, and normal support systems are compromised. Most emergency response ecosystems aren’t designed with children in mind, which often forces educators to step up and fill the void.
Knowing how to support students and their families in these times of crisis is becoming more critical as climate change increases the number of natural disasters and with school shootings and other emergencies on the rise.
Studies, including the 2011 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (or ACES), show that these types of traumatic experiences can lead to lifelong negative impacts for children if not addressed in real time.
While there is no way to guarantee traumatic events don’t impact children, there are ways to ensure your school is prepared to deal with these situations in the best possible manner. The best starting point is to have a clear business continuity or continuity of care plan in place to help and support students and families as they navigate emergencies. There are many components that go into this type of planning, but we’ll focus on a few key elements.
1. Know the Emergency Landscape
Having an emergency operations plan (EOP) laid out ahead of time that details what happens when a disaster or emergency occurs is critical. It allows decisions to be made expediently, which leads to better outcomes across the board. Aside from the plan being laid out in writing, it’s also important to be connected to your local office of emergency services. Knowing who to connect with during a disaster or emergency beyond just calling 911 also gives you an added advantage in the first hours and days of a response. Regular check-ins with emergency service personnel ensures familiarity and those strong relationships pay dividends when you need them most.
2. Establish Community Connections
Knowing what resources are available to your school, faculty and staff, students, and families gives everyone the best opportunity for positive outcomes in the face of a disaster. Having regular check-ins with other youth facing organizations – Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, local childcare collectives, etc. – strengthens community ties and leads to more coordination and less duplicative efforts during emergency responses.
3. Think About Trauma-Informed Care
When a disaster or emergency hits a community, there is widespread trauma – even for those who we don’t often think to have been directly impacted. While it’s easy to understand how someone can be affected by the loss of a home or a loved one, there are also community-wide impacts. Children are particularly vulnerable during these events as the simple disruption of routine can have serious impacts on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Availing your staff and faculty of trauma-informed resources and reaching out to ask for help and support to implement programming during and after disasters can help mitigate these negative effects.
4. Be a Resource
Much of what we’ve talked about here is how you can find tools to support students, but schools are also critical pillars of the broader community and can play an important role in the recovery effort. Thinking about what facilities can be repurposed to support these efforts and how to heal your community on a holistic level can mean a faster, more effective return to normal. School administrators, teachers and staff have critical skills that can be leveraged during these moments of crisis to care for the most vulnerable members of our society: children. Remember how valuable you are in these moments and seek out ways to utilize your skills to help your community.
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