In a little over two weeks, more than three million Australian students will return to school, ready to start a new year. But, amid the packed lunches and book bags, many may also be returning with a sense of anxiety and confusion in the aftermath of Australia’s devastating bushfires.
With fires continuing to affect Australia’s mainland states – South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia – teachers around the nation are seeking support to help them care for children who have been affected by the disaster.
University of South Australia’s Professor Marjory Ebbeck, an expert in early childhood education, says the role of teachers is critical for children, especially in times of uncertainty or trauma.
“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,” Prof Ebbeck says.
“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.
“In times of stress, children look to their significant adults – which includes teachers – to guide them, so having the right information on hand is imperative.
“For children who are struggling in the aftermath of the fires, we recommend teachers:
- 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 use 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 OK 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.”
Prof Ebbeck says a child suffering trauma may take a long time to return to some form of well-being and optimism and will need ongoing care.
“Sustained support is going to be essential for children and their families,” Prof Ebbeck says.
“Teachers have a unique role in that they can provide stability and routine when other aspects of a child’s life are tenuous.
“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.”