In Houston, Children Are Likely To Experience Trauma From Hurricane Harvey

Originally published on September 11, 2017 8:16 pm
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The role of school changes after a storm as big as Harvey. Researcher Joy Osofsky has watched that shift. After Hurricane Katrina, she embedded in New Orleans schools and saw them become much more than just places to learn. I spoke with her earlier today about the lessons she learned from Katrina that might apply to schools in southeast Texas now. To start with, she says, teachers should be aware of how students deal with their trauma.

JOY OSOFSKY: Some of the things that we may see is more difficulty concentrating, not being able to sit still, some acting out, not being able to be cooperative in class. You also will get some children who may withdraw and not be able to, again, concentrate and participate in the school. But it's more likely to have - to see acting out behavior.

SHAPIRO: Do you recommend that teachers and faculty address it outright from the very beginning? Or should they wait until something comes up and then talk about what might be causing that?

OSOFSKY: I would recommend that they address issues from the beginning. Talk to the students about, you know, we've all been through a difficult experience. I know that some of you may have lost your home. Some of you been in a shelter and been in very unusual circumstances.

And we're here to be supportive of you and understand the kinds of things that you've gone through. And we're going to work to establish the routines in school that you're used to, which we know is very important in adapting to the new situation. But we also want you to know that we're available to listen to you if that would be helpful.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like on the one hand, you're saying students want to be able to get back to a familiar routine. And at the same time, teachers need to acknowledge that the situation is anything but routine.

OSOFSKY: Absolutely. The other thing that we found helpful in the schools is to set up some opportunity to get together with teachers and counselors and school personnel, staff and others, principals, to talk about trauma and how - the impacts on children and what they might expect and how they can be supportive of them because the more you know about it, the more helpful you can be.

SHAPIRO: Given your research into the trauma that students experienced after Katrina, how long did it take them to get back to what you would consider normal? Or was the impact of Katrina in some cases permanent?

OSOFSKY: Well, one of the things that we came up with - and I've talked with lots of people in the community about this - is something that we call a new normal. So even if you're able to go back to your neighborhood and able to rebuild, some people still had a lot of difficulty with adjustment because even though they were back in the neighborhood, the neighborhood wasn't the same and the community wasn't the same.

And they weren't the same schools, and the grocery stores weren't there, and their neighbors weren't there because of a number of people moved away. So that's when we started talking about a new normal, that things may not be the way they were before. We have to recognize that they will get better over a period of time, but things may be different.

SHAPIRO: A lot of the things you've mentioned seem pretty intuitive for what you would do after a trauma - give children an opportunity to talk about what they've been through, re-establish routines. Was there anything that surprised you?

OSOFSKY: Yes. We saw so much resilience in the children. And that's something that's extremely important to emphasize, that most children will be resilient. And there were factors that contributed to that. A supportive person is very, very important. It can be a parent. It can be a teacher. The other thing that we saw with adolescents was their participation in the recovery. Many of them helped rebuild. They planted trees in the wetlands. And the remarkable resilience that we saw in the children was very noteworthy. And we'll see that in Texas as well.

SHAPIRO: Joy Osofsky is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Louisiana State University. Thank you for talking with us.

OSOFSKY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.