When disaster strikes a town, children can be affected in many ways. One of our CELA advisers, Kathy Lawton, has just returned from a support visit to services in a region severely damaged by floods earlier this year and shares her reflections with us. Scroll to the end for some great advice from KidsMatter on talking to children about trauma, sadness and confronting news.
The Northern Rivers floods
In April this year, the tropical cyclone Debbie sent an ‘ex-cyclone’ effect barrelling down through south east Queensland and northern NSW. Wild storms and torrential rain caused typical chaos in the cities of Brisbane and the Gold Coast, but the worst damage occurred in the smaller towns along major rivers in the Lismore region.
Condong, the home of Possums Preschool, experienced major flooding and hundreds of homes and businesses were evacuated.
The preschool, pictured here mid-flood, is long established and located in an historic council-owned building.
In normal circumstances it is a space of gardens and hen houses, learning and joy. Today, four months after the flood, the building is gutted from the initial flood restorations and the children and staff are operating out of spare classrooms at Tumbulgum Public School, 10 kilometres away.
While all the town’s families have returned to their homes and most businesses are back to work, Tweed Council is still deciding whether it will commit to restoring the Possums Preschool facilities to allow the staff, children and their families to return
This week, I spent some time in northern NSW offering some assistance to flood affected services as part of a program supported by CELA and the NSW Department of Education.
Possums Community Preschool in Condong was very badly affected by the floods four months ago and the staff, families and children are still displaced and uncertain of the future for their much loved hall. They are working out of Tumbulgum Public School, which is also flood prone and is built on tall pillars to raise it above any rising water.
The changed location creates unique challenges for the preschool staff and children as they are utilising several classrooms and using walkie talkies to supervise children when they use toilets and access the playground via around 30 stairs – all designed for adults and older children.
When a critical incident occurs in a children’s service your first reaction is to launch into “make it better mode”. Adrenalin kicks in and you act quickly and decisively to keep everyone safe. It is only later when the dust settles, or the waters subside, that you stop and take stock of what you have just been through.
As a director, you feel concern for the children, the families, the staff, the building, the playground, the community. You are aware of other impacting concerns also, like loss of income, insurance, public liability.
The enormous resilience of children’s services staff to act with care and compassion, to continue to provide quality programs for children and to make a difference in the lives of families is nowhere more obvious than in the amazing work being done by the team of dedicated staff at Possums Community Preschool. I came away admiring my colleagues and considering how many ways our profession is connected to the community as a whole, and to the wellbeing of every individual we contact.
When disaster strikes
Talking to children about sad or confronting news
Helping young children to understand traumatic events on their own terms, and to continue to feel safe and secure, is an important part of every educators’ role. There are many places to seek support for your part in infant and young child mental health.
Below is an extract from a Kidsmatter information sheet, written in the context of children who have been affected by some kind of trauma:
Talk to children about the traumatic event
Children do not benefit from ‘not thinking about it’ or ‘putting it out of their minds’. In the long run this can make children’s recovery more difficult.
Provide consistent and predictable routines
Children who have been traumatised can find changes in routines, transitions, surprises, unstructured social situations and new situations frightening. Maintaining children’s routines and their environment can help them feel safer and more secure so they recover from the effects of trauma.
Tune in and be responsive to children
Children who have experienced traumatic events often need help to tune into the way they are feeling. When parents, carers and staff take the time to listen, talk and play, they may find children start to tell or show how they are feeling. Traumatised children find it difficult to understand what their experiences mean.
Manage your own reactions
Parents, carers and staff experience a range of feelings when they are caring for children who have been exposed to traumatic events and may feel overwhelmed by the child’s trauma and reactions. This can lead to a traumatic stress of their own. Finding ways for adults to reduce their stress helps them continue to be effective when offering support to children who have experienced traumatic events.
Source: Kidsmatter, Trauma: when times get tough
Meet the author - Kathy Lawton
I have worked in the Early Childhood sector for 33 years in long day care, local council in children’s services management, lecturing at university and TAFE in early childhood and most recently, as a preschool director. I have taken 12 months leave from my director’s role to work on this project because I feel preschools are so important for young children and their families and the work we do as early childhood professionals sets children up for a lifetime of positive learning.