Students and children can offer such valuable contributions in the context of disasters, if we only take the time to ask them.
In this episode, we'll hear the experiences of children in disasters, in their own words, and get a better understanding of how we can best support them, and what they need from their school community before, during, and after a disaster.
Disaster Talks Episode 2 - Transcript
In this episode:
Series Audience Purpose - Learn from the stories of peers and students about how best to support my community through a current or future event, and beyond - skill development and emotional preparedness
Episode Audience Purpose - Hear the experiences of children in disasters and understand what they need from schools during this time.
Themes - Disasters through the eyes of children and young people; Child perspective and Principal’s perspective of a disaster; Personal vs professional experience; Teaching and learning after a disaster - adapting lessons; Disaster mental health.
Disaster Talks is produced by the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss, and Grief Network at the Australian National University in collaboration with UNICEF Australia and made by FACTS.
My name is Laura Gooyers-Bourke and I’m the project officer at the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network at the ANU.
And I’m Michelle Roberts, I’m the Director of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network. I’ve worked in disasters as a psychologist and educator for nearly 40 years.
Today on Disaster Talks, we’re hearing from some young people who have experienced disasters in their childhood. We’re focussing on how to prepare young people for a potential disaster, how to support them during an event and how to make their recovery process as smooth as possible.
Before we get started, I want to let you know that this episode deals with some strong emotions around the intensity of disasters. This content could be upsetting, and if this raises any issues for you, there’s always somewhere to turn. You can call Lifeline on thirteen eleven fourteen, that’s 13 11 14.
You can also visit the ACATLGN website where we have resources and links to services to support yourself, your family and your children. That’s earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au. Again, the ACATLGN website is early trauma grief dot ANU dot EDU dot AU.
You can also speak to your doctor and they will be able to refer you to support in your area.
As adults, we sometimes feel the need to shield and protect the children and young people around us from the reality of disasters. But that’s not always best.
My name is Ellie and I grew up in regional Victoria and I’ve been living in Canberra for the last sort of 18 months. When I was 11… that's when the Black Saturday bushfires came through. I was living on a farm in Tonimbuk at the time which backs onto the Bunyip State Forest so there was quite a lot of significant fire activity happening there at the time.
Initially, (so I’m the eldest of three siblings), initially the plan was that I would stay with my parents who were staying to defend the property and my younger two siblings earlier in the day were sent to two separate sets of friends. As the day sort of progressed a little bit things were looking I guess a bit more pointy and dangerous and I ended up being sent to a friend's house in Drouin which is sort of a town nearby and after a short while unfortunately in the way that the fires were going, Drouin got evacuated. So I was with my friends, my friend and her parents and younger siblings and we ended up somewhere near the city (I think it might have been Berwick, something like that) with sort of their family. So it was reasonably chaotic I suppose.
In reflecting on that and reflecting on I guess just the fact that growing up and practising for this. I remember feeling at the time a sense of “I've got this” like “I know what to do”. I felt as capable as in some cases maybe more capable to sort of navigate what was happening than the adults around me. I think that feeling helped me, that feeling of maybe it gave me a bit of a sense of feeling in control of a situation that was ultimately not in anyone's control. I think it was really helpful.
What do you think that we can do to be ready or to help our young people to be ready for unexpected events like fires, floods, storms and why do you think it's important to involve children and young people in the disaster preparedness events?
Yeah, I think look you know unfortunately realistically these things will happen and with increasing regularity and you know having really frank conversations about that. If you live out near where I grew up there will be more bushfires. There’s certainly parts of the country awfully that have had such an awful time with flooding over the last year or so. I think having conversations like “these things will happen” and I think conversations that are sort of specific to the area as well like this is where we live and this is something that you know where it's a high likelihood that these sorts of things are going to happen here. Allowing kids to be really involved in how we prepare for that taking an active role in that because I think feeling like you know what to do, even as a really little kid like you know I'm sure on reflection of course I could not have managed that situation like I couldn't drive but the sense that I felt like I knew what to do I think is what helped which was what was protective for me there so really empowering kids with that, with the knowledge and with the information so that they can develop that sense of “I know what to do, if this happens I know what we're gonna do” and I guess preparing for the inevitable uncertainty as well because you the best laid plans are often need to be changed. But genuinely, I don’t want to use the word ‘relying’ but trusting that they can be really useful, maybe this is not a very nice way of saying this, but it's another pair of hands. I think in tricky moments regardless of whether that pair of hands is 11 or 30 that's a person that knows what the plan is and what they're doing, that's useful.
What Ellie’s saying here is backed up by research. It’s natural for us to be worried that talking with kids about disasters can make them anxious. But we can’t control whether children will be involved in a disaster event. Shielding them from that reality beforehand can be more harmful than preparing them for the reality.
When you speak with children about the risk or possibility of a disaster event it’s important to be honest and straightforward and allow them to ask questions to help them to be part of the planning and physical preparation and to allow them to become psychologically prepared.
Of course, you would do that in a way that matched your child’s level of development, understanding and personality. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest and say you’ll find out and get back to them or you can search for the answer together.
Knowing what disasters your community could face, understanding the risks and sharing the strategies with your students is important.
As a principal or educator, It’s also important to have a relationship of trust in place with your student body.
My name’s Sinan Kerimofski. I am a collegiate principal in Western Australia with the Leadership Institute, basically supporting principals around the state is my current position which is a great position. I was principal of Margaret River Primary School from 2008 to 2015 - just a fantastic community, the students were outstanding and I was very lucky and privileged to be a part of that school.
We met Sinan in Episode One when he shared some of some of the practical things he’s learnt about leading during a disaster. He was the principal of Margaret River Primary when the 2011 bushfires came through the town. Among other things, he realised how valuable it was that the staff, community, and students trusted him.
All communities - you look at what happens across Australia now and unfortunately we do have fires and floods and we do see communities banding together really closely and tight and I think that’s a strength of living in the community. My goal has always been in my community, schools. I try to build that sense of community and belonging and trust in the community and trust in the school and that’s a really crucial thing to do.
This sense of community and trust that Sinan had built helped him to navigate the fires - and afterwards. He found that he leant on the leadership and communication style he had already developed.
The critical part of a leader is to really have that balance between being a relational leader, but also being one that does direct. We had our reliability that the school is a reliable place and solid, we had the relationships with the students so there was trust between the teachers and the school, and staff, parents, and the school, and then we had that credibility I suppose that these guys are adults, the principals and deputies they’ve got that credibility therefore that trustworthiness is built in and therefore we trust what they’re saying is true; “okay, we know there is a fire, we know the teacher’s had to go check on her pets or on her house so we’ll just remain calm like they’ve said and we’ll just go along with that”.
So the work you’re doing now in establishing your role in the school, being a leader, showing you have compassion, being someone the students trust. Those things will be useful if an event does happen in your school community. Then there’s the matter of how you actually communicate with students at the time of an event.
We’re in the game of, I mean it’s a people business, and we’re ultimately caring for people and our people are our students, and in our case primary school students. They can’t make meaning of this and so it’s about giving them the right amount of information that is enough for them to understand what is happening without going into too much detail. Some students' level of cognitive ability, they’re not going to understand what you’re saying. It's giving them enough so that they know things are going to be okay, they might not be right now but they will be okay and we will recover from this. Because when people are in a state of panic and flux they certainly can’t think straight and so it’s really important for a leader to guide actions to say “the school is closing”, 10 words, 100 words, 1000 words. A leader needs to make meaning and make sense of what is going on for some people and then be relational, so there’s a balance, that to-and-fro, that little tango between being relational, being directive, being relational, being directive and managing that is really crucial and really critical.
I think everyone especially because kids can sense that something really bad was going on and could sense that stress in the adults but I think the teachers did a really good job of communicating that we just needed to sit tight and everything was going to be alright.
Amber was in year six at Margaret River Primary School in 2011, when Sinan was the principal.
I remember being in the classroom and just seeing the sky turning red and black from smoke so at that point I think the teacher's they went to have a staff meeting, I assume to try and work out how they were going to communicate to us what was going on. Initially there was a really loud sense of foreboding and panic because we hadn’t seen anything like that before and then the teachers actually immediately were quite good at saying what was happening. They said, “there's a bushfire, it's gone out of control, it’s near to the town, and it’s going to be passing through certain areas of the town”. So initially we basically remained in the classroom and carried on lessons as if it was a normal day and then eventually they did bring us out onto the oval and I think that probably added to the sense of confusion a little bit because it was out of the norm but it also helped a lot because you could go and find your friends outside of your classrooms and lean on those other networks of support that are not fully rely on the adults the whole time.
And do you remember how the teachers communicated information to you? What kind of things went on and what did you find helpful and what maybe would you prefer be done a different way?
Yeah I think the main channel of information or communication was we relied on our classroom teachers so we sat in our classes and our classroom teachers would give us any information that they thought was important for everybody to hear about what was happening. And then there was a group of teachers that were going and contacting and drawing out individual students that they thought needed to contact their parents to find out what was going on or they needed to tell them what had happened but potentially bad news about their home being destroyed or their family having to be evacuated. I think they did that quite well, they brought students away from the group just to make sure that they were okay and see how they reacted. And then there were also some students that because of the general environment and the stress of it all were getting quite stressed and were beginning to cry, especially some of the younger ones. So I think they did a good job at uniting siblings within that and getting those young kids to people that they knew and relied on and gave the opportunity for people to go and sit in the classroom away from the big student body as well to try and make a more calm environment and get away from all of the intense atmosphere.
Communicating calmly and clearly with students sounds pretty obvious, and perhaps easy to do, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Disasters tend to move fast, so you’re working out the best way to communicate with students on the fly.
This is an area that is great to focus on in extra training if you can, but here are a few tips for you to start with.
First, take a moment to centre yourself before you speak - calm your breathing and your mind. One good technique to do this quickly is to focus on your breathing and count to three as you breathe in and again as you breathe out.
Next, take some time to be clear about what you want to say and what the purpose is of what you are saying. Initially, you are sharing information to inform and calm, to speak about what action will be taken and how it's going to work.
If you do get upset when you’re speaking - that’s ok. Just acknowledge that you feel upset, that these times can be scary, and that it’s ok to feel emotions.
Also, only share what’s known for sure, not what might happen. For instance, you don’t need to say houses may be lost if you don’t know that they will. Finally, offer the students to ask questions and if you don’t know the answers, it’s ok to say that.
I think young people often have a very unique perspective of disasters, being quite vulnerable and not knowing what’s going on and having that lack of access to information and communication. I think sometimes adults can forget how young people are feeling as they’re dealing with their own point of views and they just forget that young people fully rely on looking at the reactions of others to sort of gauge what’s happening. They don’t understand the extent of certain disasters maybe it's their first experience of such a disaster so I think it's really important for adults in those situations to communicate to young people what's going on and just being really open and honest with what’s actually happening in those disasters so that young people feel that they've been informed and that nothing's being hidden from them. And that reduces the panic because I think that a lot of the panic and confusion just comes from not knowing and wondering and normally jumping to the worst case scenario so being told exactly what is happening is really helpful to alleviating some of that anxiety and stress.
Once the immediate threat of the disaster has passed, and the community’s starting to face the next stage of recovery and rebuild, your role as a leader can continue to be challenging.
You’re part of the community, you’re experiencing this process yourself, but you also have to lead and support the staff and students. This is hard, and we dealt with some ways to manage it in Episode One.
Now, let’s look at what you can be doing to support your students after the event is over.
Students need us to listen and acknowledge their experiences, it’s also important for all of us to get into a routine after a disaster, predictability is helpful to feeling a sense of control and psychological safety.
This doesn’t mean you will be doing the same as before the disaster but that patterns and routines will be developed and school days will be predictable and calm. We need to find a balance between talking about the disaster, and creating a sense of being able to establish a new normal.
As a child, Ellie found some relief at school because it did offer this feeling of normal life.
Ultimately school felt like a place of comparative normalcy from pretty early on, certainly compared to you know like our school wasn't in anyway damaged I guess that compared to the drive to and from school where we were driving through areas that had been burnt and that was I guess that reminder certainly in the home context that something had happened really recently that those sorts of things they weren't at school. I think school felt comparatively normal.
Within this feeling of normal life it’s important we don’t disregard what people are experiencing. And this is made even more tricky by the fact that we’re all impacted differently by the same event. Past adversity, trauma or other life events can pile up and impact people in different ways.
It’s important to allow everyone to feel whatever they’re feeling and not presume that we can all just get on with life, it's equally important to encourage connection with other people and regulation of distressing feelings. By providing a sense of the threat being behind and moving forward, this is where recovery is possible.
It was something that so many people in the school community either very directly or indirectly were impacted by to varying levels you know they were definitely kids, there was kids at school who knew people who lost their lives in the fires, there were also kids from further down the road closer to sort of town that had less of that direct experience didn't have to evacuate or anything like that so definitely different experiences of the fire but it was definitely something that was acknowledged. I remember assemblies and things like that.
Supporting a school community through the aftermath of a disaster is challenging, and what your school community needs will vary depending on the event and its impacts.
It’s important to get advice and guidance based on the particular events you’ve been through.
So it did have a massive impact on the community at the time and having the opportunity just to talk about things and debrief with each other was really important. But I have to say the school psychology service provided us with great information and they provided a few resources for teachers to use. So we go back to that script, so there were some things they were able to use in their classrooms. Giving students space and time to talk about things was really important, and also being able to interrupt a student when they were going a bit too far. So giving permission for teachers to say “we’ll just stop it there” before going too far and maybe causing a bit more grief amongst the class.
So we had assemblies where we gathered together and just debriefed pretty much; debriefed, honest again with the students about what was going on, and also sympathetic, empathetic and just gave people space if they needed space, staff were given time off if they needed time off, they were given space to talk and we met solely as staff as well. It was just about recovering and we moved definitely into that recovery phase, and because it was visual for quite a while, there were lots of triggers, there were still flare ups happening across the place.
As a student at Margaret River Primary, Amber remembers some assemblies and conversations after the fire, and also a sense of the school moving on from the event.
I had a friend who did lose her home to the fires so I think mine was my memory is dominated by just trying to talk to her and comfort her and I guess talk to her about her experience. But I think as a young person she was also away from school for a few days after the fires so we weren’t really sure what had happened or what the situation was so when she did return to school I think she was more in a space that she could talk about it and wasn't it wasn't directly upsetting or confronting her anymore she’d had time to process it and deal with it. And to be honest the main thing I remember is her parents just bought her a puppy as a kind of consolation puppy so we would basically play with the puppy that she brought to school and things like that.
So I think my memories of the fire is that it sort of got brushed over quite quickly as well. I think the teachers were pretty keen to return to norm as soon as they can so we continued with lessons the next week as normal. There wasn't a lot of speak or discussion about the fires from the teacher's point of view.
Striking this balance between talking about and processing the disaster together; and creating a sense of new normal is hard to do. It can help if you offer the students an opportunity to be involved in the practical side of recovery. This allows them to have a role in repair and recovery that is valued.
So I think as a young person you do feel almost a bit useless in these situations - you're not really sure, you need guidance about where to turn and how you can contribute and definitely you feel like you want to contribute to your community that's been damaged and impacted by this disaster, you want to feel like you're not just sitting there being useless. I think it's really important for almost like closure of the event to go back and start rebuilding community because you’ve had these traumatic experiences, you’ve seen all of this devastation if you just left it at that and left young people to go back to their normal lives it would feel quite confronting and that there was no sense of closure or that they could start pushing back on those negative emotions by rebuilding. So I think the sense and process of rebuilding community actually makes them feel like they are giving back to community and pushing back against what the disaster has impacted on them. So being able to - small things like clearing up towns after fires and floods can really help them feel like they’re not powerless in that situation and feel like they’re a member of their community and that they have the ability to actually make their community better for them and their loved ones again as well.
That’s great, I think it sounds like it would be very empowering to be involved in that process rather than dis-empowering.
Yes, definitely. I think young people often feel that they just have to sit on the sidelines and just watch the adults do everything so being brought into that process of community rebuilding is really important for young people and just communicating to them “how would you like to assist?” or “what would you like to do and where would you like to be involved?” and actually getting young people’s perspectives is really important.
Yeah. I think that definitely applies to both being prepared before a disaster and being involved there as well as in the recovery afterwards. Can you tell us your reflections about how we can include students in that recovery process maybe from a school perspective?
I think from a school perspective it would be really important to support certain families or children that have been really heavily impacted so that they feel the community is there supporting them and that they haven’t just been looked over. I think my friend, she almost felt like it was almost taboo for her to talk about her experiences because she was one of the rare circumstances in this bushfire that had lost everything. So she was in quite a different boat from the rest of the students and I think she felt a little bit isolated and almost forgotten by the rest of the school community who had almost brushed over the disaster and were now starting to talk about it in quite light-hearted terms. So I think that was really difficult for her and if a school community can almost gather around those families that have been impacted, perhaps by doing a fundraiser - she had lost all of her clothes, all of her books, everything - so potentially having school fundraisers to buy them a new bike or something like that so they feel the school community has looked out for them and they are aware of their situation and want to help. I think that’s really important.
There are some common threads here when we look at how to support young people through the stages of a disaster - before it happens, during the disaster, and afterwards.
As a leader, firstly, you’re building on relationships that you’ve already established and it’s helpful that you already have a foundation of trust with the staff, students, and parents.
Next, involve students in the preparation for a potential disaster. Be honest about what risks exist in your community, ask their opinions on how to prepare and share the plans and processes so they know what to do.
During the disaster, it’s important to be able to take action that is organised, calm and communicated. Practice and drills create a memory of what to do when things are chaotic and allow for informed action.
Relay trusted information about what’s happening and what actions are to be taken. Moderate distressing or frightening information and adjust to suit the age level. Don’t try to hide the facts from your students, but don’t share all the worst potential outcomes.
Once an event is over, it's important to get students back to their families. This can be logistically difficult but it is so important.
Link in with those mental health supports that you already know or make sure that you meet with those who come to support recovery and gauge if they have something more to offer your school community.
Involve your student’s in the recovery planning and processes, ask them what they need and what they’d like to do. Being part of the repair and recovery is helpful to overcoming the sense of helplessness that can come with being in a disaster. It also brings the collective together and enables support.
UNICEF believes that every child has a right to be heard, educated, and participate in discussions that affect them. Therefore we need to ensure we consult directly with children and young people to best understand their needs and priorities before, during, and after a disaster.
If this podcast has raised any issues or challenges for you, don’t push through alone.
You can call Lifeline on thirteen eleven fourteen, that’s 13 11 14.
You can also visit the ACATLGN website where we have resources and links to services to support yourself, your family, and your children. That’s earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au. Again, the ACATLGN website is early trauma grief dot ANU dot EDU dot AU.
Thank you to Ellie, Amber and Sinan for sharing your stories with us.
Disaster Talks is produced by the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network at the Australian National University in collaboration with UNICEF Australia and made by FACTS.
Editing and design by Liz Keen from Headline Productions.
Michelle Roberts is our co-host, and I’m Laura Gooyers-Bourke.