School Climate & Safety

Online Simulation Preps Schools for Emotional Toll of Disasters

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 20, 2019 | Corrected: August 23, 2019 4 min read
A scene from an online simulation created to provide a crash course for Houston teachers on recognizing the emotional aftereffects of disasters in students and responding to them with sensitivity.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the partners engaged in developing the training simulation. The Center for School Behavioral Health partnered with 31 local school districts, the local technology firm Kognito, and UNICEF-USA, part of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Sudden disasters—from hurricanes to school shootings—demand schools respond to widespread trauma on the fly.

Janet Pozmantier, the director of the three-person Center for School Behavioral Health in Houston, said the scale of the need for trauma and mental-health services in the 31 southeast Texas school districts they serve has been daunting, after a mass school shooting in Santa Fe last year or in the wake of the hurricanes that swept—and regularly continue to sweep—the Texas coast.

“Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, and we have a small staff of three people. There’s no way we could get to every school in our largest school district, Houston ISD, alone,” she said. “It became very clear that many of our students were experiencing psychological problems that had greater intensity than we had experienced before. And it was not just older kids, but younger, even very young ones; even preschool children were entering school with problems that were pretty overwhelming to staff at the schools.”

That’s why the center partnered with its school districts, the local technology firm Kognito, and UNICEF-USA, part of the United Nations Children’s Fund, to develop an online crash course on recognizing and addressing student trauma.

While communities often get immediate mental-health supports after a disaster, Pozmantier said she found schools and teachers had difficulty understanding and responding to longer-term effects that show up weeks or months after the emergency crews have left.

“So many [staff] were not understanding the behaviors that students exhibited,” Pozmantier said, such as poor concentration and listening skills, restlessness, and sleeplessness.

“A lot of it was attributed to [attention-deficit disorders] because students were kind of out of control in that way, but we realized that many of these students were not medically diagnosable with [attention deficits] or ADHD,” she added. “We were looking at trauma that had not been treated.”

Kognito worked with the center to develop a 30-minute online training, consisting of a series of virtual simulations, showing how students might express trauma in the classroom.

The simulations take teachers through multiple interactions with a student over time. In one, a teacher must deal with a middle school girl who refuses to join a class book discussion.

“The class is reading a book she finds triggering—but we don’t know that. All we know as players of this simulation is that she’s not participating in class as she usually does,” said Jennifer Spiegler, a senior vice president of Kognito, which designs health-related online professional development simulations for a variety of organizations.

Not a ‘One-and-Done’

With a coach, the teacher walks through how to help the student, who may not want to reveal the real reason she doesn’t want to participate in class. Over a series of virtual conversations, the teacher helps the student find alternatives to the book discussion, follows up with the student over time to understand what’s wrong, and potentially refers the student to a mental-health professional.

“It reinforces the notion that this is not a one-and-done conversation,” Spiegler said. The virtual students respond differently to different approaches to the teachers, and may open up, shut down, or escalate bad behavior over time.

Custodians and staff prepare to reopen C.E. King High School in Houston in December of 2017, months after Hurricane Harvey shut down the school and devastated much of the city.

The simulations also include one of the most common pitfalls teachers face in working with students affected by trauma: moving from support to outright therapy.

“If you start to tell a student that you think they might be depressed, your coach will be very clear with you that that’s not your role,” Spiegler said. “Your role is to elicit information from the student about what’s going on; it’s not making assumptions about their behavior or giving advice.”

Principals can play a big role in helping their schools recover, Pozmantier said, by planning services for situations that could trigger post-traumatic stress, such as anniversaries or even weather conditions that are similar to those surrounding the original traumatic event.

01 Trauma factoid 2 embed new

In several schools, she noted, normal summer thunderstorms led to spikes in student meltdowns and teacher anxiety months after hurricanes struck.

“We need to make people aware that everybody’s going to have a really hard time with this for awhile. It will pass, but it might be a few years before it passes,” Pozmantier said.

A grant from UNICEF-USA provided the training free to the Houston districts, and more than 3,000 Houston-area teachers piloted it last year.

A preliminary evaluation found teachers who worked through the simulations were more likely to engage students in discussions about trauma when problems arose in the classroom and referred more students for mental health services than they had before they participated in the simulation training.

About This Series

This is the first installment in a series of articles exploring how schools are learning to recognize and respond to students experiencing stress, whether their trauma stems from a sudden disaster or a long-term hardship like poverty or abuse. Read More.

While many schools are spurred to begin training staff in trauma-informed schooling in response to an emergency, Pozmantier said, the same crisis can also provide an impetus to look more deeply at other problems that affect student learning.

The Fort Bend Independent, Texas, school district, for example, adopted a 90-minute version of the training for all 10,000 of its teachers and other staff, with simulations that include both disaster training and support for other types of trauma, such as child abuse.

“When we went into this, we thought we were making something in response to natural disaster,” Spiegler said. “But what we’ve learned about how trauma presents itself is that schools have to focus not just on the disaster, but on the more common traumatic stress that teachers see on a day-to-day basis.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Prepping Schools for Emotional Effects of Disaster

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