Savvy Tips for Helping Children Prepare for Crises and Respond to Disasters

Each workday in the U.S., 69 million children become separated from their families to attend school or receive child care. If disaster strikes, schools, families and anybody else responsible for children’s welfare need proper plans to keep young people safe.

One organization devoted to making that happen is Save the Children, which has been protecting children worldwide for nearly 100 years. Though the NGO is famous for its work in the developing world, it has helped more than 1.5 million children affected by U.S. disasters in the past decade.

Sarah Thompson, associate director for community preparedness for Save the Children, shared a wide range of tips for educators and parents to help make sure children know what to do in a natural disaster or any other emergency.

Better protecting kids before disaster strikes

In a crisis, all little eyes will be on teachers for clues on how to react. Teachers need to know the emergency plan at their school — and their precise role within that plan.

“They should know and practice procedures for evacuation, shelter-in-place and lockdown,” Thompson said. Furthermore, teachers must have critical supplies and information ready to go, accounting for special needs among the children that may require extra attention or support, she said.

Educators should share the emergency plan with parents/guardians to make sure they know how to communicate with schools during an emergency. It’s imperative that adults know evacuation locations and the process for reunification.

Making sure children are ready

Children also need to learn how to become prepared. Too many preparedness lessons go no further than the occasional fire drill at school, and some may think doing more than that will be too scary for children.

Thompson counters that learning about crises — particularly natural disasters — helps children gain understanding and control over events. If they know what to do in advance, they’re equipped to respond more quickly and cope more effectively.

“According to FEMA, less than half of American families have an emergency plan,” Thompson said. “But children can be powerful message bearers.” Federal Emergency Management Agency research found that families of school-age children who brought preparedness resources home from school were 75 percent more likely to have a plan, she said.

Educators should talk about why they do emergency drills at school and how children can help their families prepare at home — knowing who to contact, identifying evacuation routes and safe rooms, and packing a supplies kit.

Kid-friendly disaster preparedness

Thompson said some preparedness is about making a plan and writing it down (for example, having children draw their home with evacuation routes). But you can mix in other activities that get children involved in emergency preparedness. Consider these activities:

  • Disaster supply relay race: Gather piles of disaster supplies and have children race down to pick up something they might need in a disaster. Add in miscellaneous items (princess crown, wall clock, etc.) to have students make a choice.
  • Prep step dance: This 90-second song teaches children to know their ICE (in case of emergency) contacts, make a family plan and make a go-bag. Watch the dance instruction video to make it even easier.
  • Safety-themed books. Read an emergency- or safety-themed book aloud and ask about the characters’ safe choices along the way. This helps children think through scenarios without making it about their own experiences.
  • Weather forecast video. Talk about the weather risks in your region and learn basic weather terminology (such as storm watches and warnings), then have children put the pieces together to make a weather forecast video or presentation.

These activities and others are from Save the Children’s Prep Rally Curriculum, which can be downloaded free.

Insert crisis plans into your curriculum

“Oftentimes preparedness lessons can fit into other curriculum you’re covering, whether it’s science, health or safety,” said Thompson. “Make it easy on yourself. Doing just one or two short activities where it makes sense can help children be more prepared.”

  • Invite a special guest. Make your preparedness education come to life by inviting first responders to your class and talk about their roles before, during and after emergencies. Have children write interview questions and do research in advance.
  • Host a family event. Children often best remember the special events with their families. Host a safety or preparedness event or day where children can present some of the information they learned to their families.
  • Keep your safety focus: During preparedness activities, always bring the conversation back to safety. “Disasters can be scary and tell children that, in these situations, it’s normal to be scared,” Thompson said. “But by having a plan and practicing it, you are learning how to be safe.” Also, be sure to reassure children that many caring adults will be there to keep them safe in an emergency, she said.

Pay attention to children’s vulnerabilities in emergencies

Children are not little adults. In a crisis, their physical, emotional and developmental needs make them much more vulnerable. Some limitations are defined by age, size or disability. Infants, toddlers and children with disabilities may not be able to verbally identify themselves or family members — hindering family reunification. Some may be unable to walk, and others may need to hold hands for balance.

Children’s bodies are smaller and less developed, putting them at greater risk of illness or harm in an emergency. For example, Thompson said, because children have thinner skin and take more breaths per minute than adults, they are more susceptible to harmful chemicals or smoke inhalation. They also require specialized pediatric medical equipment and medication dosages.

Remember the emotional toll of a crisis

Disasters pose unique psychological and emotional threats to young people. “Children of all ages are deeply affected by experiences of death, destruction, terror and the absence of their parents or guardians during a disaster,” said Thompson, who noted that children affected by large-scale disasters are five times more likely to suffer serious emotional problems than those who have not experienced a major disaster.

“Adult leaders’ reactions and responses to the disaster can often add an additional layer of stress,” she said. Children have limited capacity to understand what’s happening to them in a crisis, so they need specialized support to develop healthy coping skills to help them heal and recover, Thompson said.

A disaster may disrupt the school year and participation in regular programs. Children may also fall behind when they struggle with the long-term physiological or psychological aftermath of a disaster. Without appropriate intervention, these setbacks can cause children to lag their peers educationally and developmentally, potentially changing the course or their lives.

Finally, children depend on routine to help them make sense of their surroundings and feel comforted. Whether it is recreation time or story time, keeping schedules consistent after a disaster is crucial in helping children recover.

Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.

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