Children caught in natural or man-made disasters can suffer from trauma and bereavement far longer than adults realize, and this can affect not only how well they perform at school but also the trajectory of their lives, researchers have said.
Floodwaters eventually recede, power is restored, buildings are repaired and daily routines begin again, but many children struggle, finding it difficult to concentrate, do schoolwork and sleep. Some are scared to leave home for school, fearful something will happen to them or their families. And at school, some will act out, leading to suspension and expulsion, while others can’t concentrate, said David Schonfeld, head of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California.
Adults don’t always see how children react internally and expect them to bounce back quickly when routines are restarted, but the effects can linger years after the disaster.
“It’s not like it gets all better quickly and everyone can move on,” Schonfeld said. Though it is often said that children are flexible and get used to living in difficult conditions, in many cases, they don’t.
“Communities still have ongoing challenges to rebuild,” he said. “People may have died, and there is grief related to that. Children don’t easily get over it. They don’t forget it. They don’t go back to the way they were before.”
Researchers say academic performance and graduation rates generally drop after a disaster, although precise numbers on how many children are affected and in what ways are not available, and great variability exists in how children respond. That’s why schools are urged to write notes to colleges explaining why a student’s performance dropped during a period of trauma.
As for catching up, well, Schonfeld said, that doesn’t really happen in the sense of making up for all the lost work.
“They don’t catch up in the sense that they can do everything they would have done in the absence of the crisis and make up for all of the lost time, but they will catch up in their rate and capacity to learn, and that is really what your goal is,” he said.
He told one administrator to think of it as if someone running a marathon hurt her ankle and had to sit out awhile. That runner might be able to get back to running at the same speed as before the injury but can’t really make up for what was lost.
“It’s just not realistic,” Schonfeld said. “Why would you ever think they could make up for it? I will say this to administrators, and they will say that makes sense. So I say, ‘Don’t hold yourself to that expectation. Don’t think you can help kids do that. Just meet your kids where they are and help them get as far as they can.’ That is what education is.”
In 2010, the Congress-mandated National Commission on Children and Disasters reported that state and local governments needed to better identify the needs of children — including those with special needs — before disaster strikes and develop long-term recovery plans that address their housing, education, health and mental-health needs. It offered 81 recommendations, but the most recent assessment of how much state and local governments took that to heart, a 2015 report by the nonprofit Save the Children, found that only 17 recommendations had been “fully met.”
Some cities have had to scramble to keep school going after hurricanes, such as by sending students to temporary housing or even to different districts. And some students, such as those in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, wound up in new schools in their own city after virtually the entire school system was converted into charter schools.
In poor communities and those that have no post-disaster plans, kids suffer more. A 2010 meta-analysis of 96 studies that examined post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic stress symptoms in nearly 75,000 youths found that in many cases, the effects of the disaster last years and that it is not just the disaster that causes trauma:
The first year post-disaster constitutes what have been referred to as the recoil, postimpact, and initial recovery phases … during which time many children are forced to relocate, change schools, and/or cope for the first time with the loss of a loved one. These forms of disaster-related life disruption can, in turn, be associated with increased risk of developing post-disaster PTS.
Another 2010 study found that it took several years after Katrina for children who went through the storm to see a lessening of post-traumatic stress and depression symptoms. It said the most important way to help children recover was to build and maintain supportive relationships, which was evident at Stone Harbor Elementary in New Jersey, a school that closed October to March after Hurricane Sandy.
Stacey Tracy, superintendent of the district that contains Stone Harbor, said the young students there easily moved to the middle school they would attend later and the small and close community came together to handle any issues that arose. “We were lucky,” she said. “We were fine. We are fine. The kids are all fine.”
It turns out children around the world react similarly to disaster despite differences in cultures and resources. A 2016 research brief by the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University titled “The Impact of Natural Disaster on Childhood Education” looked at devastating earthquakes’ effect on young people in Nepal. It found the same dynamic despite the very different cultures in that country and the United States. The poorest were the hardest hit, and young people were affected in these primary ways:
Based on our literature review, there are four main channels through which natural disasters may impact education: psychological impact, shifts in child labor, infrastructure damage, and poverty.
The psychological impact of natural disasters can hinder a student’s ability to perform well in school. After a natural disaster, survivors have shown symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can last up to five years following the disaster and decrease academic performance.