It is hard to reconcile the massive fires that have raged throughout these school holidays. It has been a deeply concerning start to our bushfire season and our thoughts are with all of those who have been affected. The overall cost to our community is still yet unknown. What we do know is that the psychological impact of the trauma will be far reaching.
Although the Federal Government is contributing $76 million to support the mental health and wellbeing of those affected by these fires, this implementation will take time and teachers need strategies they can use in the classroom straight away when student soon return to their classrooms. We know that teachers are not counsellors or mental health professionals, and we always encourage you to refer to registered practitioners if you have any concerns about another person.
Teachers and other consistent adults in schools, however, can be excellent observers of changes in the behaviours of their students. They tend to pick up on the nuances that ‘something is not quite right’. This is sometimes an extra challenge at the beginning of the school year when many teachers are just learning about students without the benefit of prior knowledge.
So, what can we do in schools?
Routines, routines, routines!
Begin the year by creating very simple ‘check in’ routines. Routines and predictability are important for all of us, and particularly for children when something overwhelming, unexpected or frightening has happened. Creating predictable routines reduces stress and increases feelings of safety, both of which are critical for effective learning and social engagement to take place. Many of the tools from the Berry Street Education Model are of great benefit. Here are a few to focus upon initially.
- Encouraging students to plot their ‘readiness to learn’ on a scale at the start of each day and at each transition is a helpful way of building personal awareness and expression. When we establish a routine like this we create opportunities for building a culture of communication. If students aren’t in a space to learn you can help them problem solve what might assist them to regulate and engage, for example asking what would help move them from a 2 to a 3?
- Start each day with a Circle routine to set the intention for the day. Circle routines have the components of a greeting that involves an element of safe connection (hand shake, high five, finger touch – be creative so it stays upbeat and fun). Circle also provides opportunities to highlight values that are important in the classroom that day, along with the typical announcements. Then we recommend a fun positive primer. This short activity serves to increase positive emotions and build interconnections. Barbara Fredrickson (2009) describes the benefits of positive emotion creation as improving our ability to take on new learning, helping our immune system and it also positively binds us to others in our community.
- Deliberately teach strategies of de-escalation and incorporate these into lesson plans regularly. Once students have learned skills of de-escalation, encourage them to use the strategies independently and to monitor if they help. Try new ones if they are not useful.
Don’t assume that because your area was ‘untouched’ by fire that your students and staff aren’t impacted in some way. Images of fires, destroyed homes, wounded and dead animals and distressed people have streamed into our homes via multiple media channels. Hearing and seeing stories of traumatic situations can have a significant physical and emotional impact on children and adults, even without them being directly exposed to the situation.
Trauma impact can be subtle and, in our experience from the 2009 fires, it can seep through you in ways that aren’t immediately fully detectable to the individual. It is also important to be mindful that each individual will have their own response and reaction to the situation they have witnessed. This is true for both students and teachers. Because of the individual nature of trauma impact, responses to trauma do not comprise an easy-to-follow checklist of ‘things’ to look out for. Rather, we should be observant of shifts in behaviour, especially excesses. Look out for excessive inward behaviour (withdrawing physically/emotionally; not participating in previously-enjoyed activities, excessive sleep/daydreaming) or excessive outward behaviours (extreme emotional outbursts, aggression, inability to sit still and/or concentrate, extremely controlling behaviour). These types of changes can be a sign that something is troubling the student and that they may need additional support and reassurance/connection in order to re-establish safety.
Accepting that these bushfires will have affected everyone to some degree is important. Whilst our hearts are heavy for those who have lost much, we must also be careful to consider those whose scars are not as obvious. Our classrooms will be filled with students at varying points on the spectrum of impact, so unconditional regard for all is a helpful approach rather than a rating system using comparisons.
Looking after your own needs while looking after others
Finally, be observant of your own shifts in your personal routines, moods and reactions. Compassion fatigue can diminish our effectiveness to help others and we need to bolster our own reserves at this time. Re-establish or maintain your good ‘self care’ routines so that you are consciously building your coping skills. Applying the strategies you teach your students to yourself is another good way of keeping yourself mentally fit to teach/work alongside young people. Ensure you seek professional help if you or others notice that you are flailing.
Challenging times bring out many strengths in community
Drawing on the strengths of perspective and gratitude can also be helpful for healing at this time. Amidst the devastation there are countless stories and compassion, heroism, friendship and teamwork. Paying attention to the best of humanity and being grateful for those that help or doing something to help others may assist in bringing balance to the experience. Across the globe the community has reached out to support those impacted. It is heartening to see humanity in action.
Fredrickson, B. E. (2009). Positivity. New York: Random House
Leonie Abbott with the Berry Street Education and Take Two Teams