Disasters like Hurricane Ian can affect school performance for years to come

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By Carl F. Weems, Iowa State University

When officials at a New Orleans middle school asked me to help struggling students after the city was hit by Hurricane Katrina, we disagreed.

They wanted me to focus on helping children overcome Test anxiety. Their concern was to enable the children to pass a high-stakes standardized test.

As a developmental psychologist specializing in how children react to adverse events that cause stress and anxiety, I – and my colleagues – had something else in mind. We wanted to know more about the severity of trauma in children. We wanted to know how they were coping with the lingering effects of having their lives uprooted by the hurricane. Our goal was to develop an intervention to reduce their overall anxiety, not just to help children pass a test.

Based on the destruction I saw around the school – which was located in one of the hardest hit areas of the city – we felt strongly that our cause was the nobler of the two. I thought back to my time in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina after seeing how badly Florida had been hit by Hurricane Ian.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005. Parker Deen via Getty Images

For example, I recalled when I looked out the classroom window in New Orleans, seeing the 8-foot (2.5-meter) high watermarks on the houses surrounding the school, most of them between them still condemned and uninhabited. Only a house here and there had been renovated.

The children were traumatized in many ways: By the high-crime neighborhood they lived in but loved. By the fact that their neighborhood was now partially gone due to storm damage. Seeing hurricane devastation every day – even a year after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005.

So we asked about screening children for post-traumatic stress disorder. School leaders, however, have stressed the need for students to do well on standardized tests.

The conflict ultimately led me to an important realization: we didn’t have to choose between overcoming text anxiety and PTSD. We could do both. I thought that helping children regulate their emotions while taking a test could also potentially help them regulate their emotions in everyday life.

So began our decade of research into what it takes to rebuild children’s emotional well-being in the years following a hurricane.

As Florida officials struggle to get state schools back on track In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, we believe our post-Katrina research in New Orleans offers important insights into how to ensure these efforts address the emotional toll the hurricane may have taken on students. from kindergarten to 12th grade.

A matter of years

One of the most important lessons is that, just as it will be will probably take years Rebuilding infrastructure and homes affected by Hurricane Ian could take just as long to help some children regain a sense of normalcy. My own research – and that of many others – shows that while children are often resilient in the face of disasters, the effects of trauma can be insidious and linger for years to come.

A frontal view of a closed school in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed neighborhoods and schools. futurewalk via Getty Images

And not all children will be affected in the same way. Many may have intense and long-lasting anxiety symptoms that are stable over time. Others may initially show a few symptoms that get worse or grow over time. Some children may have symptoms that progress over time to other symptoms. Common symptoms include hyperarousal, which occurs when a child’s body goes into a state of high alert, and emotional numbness, which often progresses later and involves difficulty feeling emotions, usually positive ones.

Our research shows that witnessing disasters and damage to the home are associated with symptoms of PTSD, which can manifest as test anxiety and ultimately lead to lower grades in school.

Because of the variability in symptom onset, screening for distress in children is warranted. School-based screenings and interventions that help children regulate their emotions can be beneficial for all young people in hard hit areas. School-based screenings may also be warranted both immediately after and during long term. Screenings can help better identify young people who need to be referred to more intensive duty.

In 2010, my colleagues and I suggest children affected by disasters are screened for anxiety-related distress. For my colleagues and me, it is comforting to know that the US Task Force on Preventive Services, an independent panel of volunteer experts in disease prevention and evidence-based medicine, recommended an even broader approach: anxiety screenings for all children and adolescents aged 8 to 18, not just those affected by disasters. It will be particularly important to follow this policy recommendation in areas affected by Ian and other disasters.

Targeting Test Anxiety

In our post-Katrina research, we also found that targeting test-related anxiety through an intervention was associated with reduced PTSD symptoms.

When students suffer from PTSD, they are more likely to experience test anxiety. And when they experience test anxiety, they’re less likely to do well on tests, our research shows. Indeed, scientists and now many policy makers accept that childhood exposure to adverse or traumatic events can have negative effects on the developing brain.

Therefore, if schools want to help students do better, my research suggests that they should focus on helping children learn to regulate their anxiety. One way to do this is to use cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a treatment that helps people identify and change negative thought patterns that affect their behavior and emotions. This involves a number of techniques, such as helping children face their fears and difficulties directly – in this case, testing – instead of avoiding problems. Previous research has found a link between students with PTSD and “school refusalbehavior, ie refusing to go to school.

Another technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. This technique consists of tensing and then relaxing all the muscles of your body, gradually from the toes to the face. Another technique was deep breathing.

Test-anxious children who learned these techniques after Katrina saw their scores improve by an average of one letter notein this case, from mostly Cs to mostly Bs. Our research also suggests these techniques can help prevent long-term difficulties. The same techniques could also be useful in Florida.The conversation

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license.

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