Helping Hurricane's Victims Get Back to Normal

By Mary Cochrane

Release Date: September 2, 2005

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Catherine Cook-Cottone
Assistant Professor, Counseling School and Educational Psychology
716-645-2484 x1073

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While Louisiana and Mississippi residents struggle to evacuate, to relocate and -- above all else, to survive -- many of the youngest among them face years of recovery from a variety of traumas Hurricane Katrina has dispersed upon them.

A University at Buffalo expert in recovering from the effects of stress spoke about what the hurricane victims can expect to endure in coming months.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, assistant professor and director of school psychology in the Graduate School of Education, said the Katrina catastrophe will produce many forms of suffering in all its victims, young and old.

"The traumas that these victims face -- loss of family members, friends and neighbors, destruction of homes, neighborhoods, entire towns -- guarantee that many of them will experience post-traumatic stress disorder in one form or another," said Cook-Cottone, adding ""Loss, displacement and changes in routine, compounded with physiological stressors such as dehydration, hunger or injury, increases the chances of psychological symptoms."

While children, "in general are quite resilient," infants, toddlers and pre-teens are especially at risk. 

"The younger children are, the more their reaction depends on the adjustment of their parents and those around them," she added. "If the environment and adults around them provide a safe, structured, and nurturing response to the disaster, the children have a better chance of faring well."

In general, the parents of these stricken children can help them adjust immediately.

"Children will be soothed by routine, structure, and normality. Getting them back to routine is typically considered good," Cook-Cottone said.

But for 185,000 Louisiana school-age children, and another 160,000 students from Mississippi, starting the school year at new, strange schools far away from their hometowns will be anything but routine or normal.

The teachers and school counselors at these schools will face a tremendous responsibility as key support figures for their new arrivals.

"This situation is difficult as many children will be attending alternative schools and schools at which the student-teacher ratio limits may be lifted to allow for the influx of the displaced students," Cook-Cottone said. "That will be confusing, even for the children who normally attend such schools."

Parents and adult relatives have several other ways they can work to allow for the children to make smoother transitions to new schools.

"The schools might want to consider allowing parents to accompany children in the mornings, and to provide a safe place for children to go during the day if they need to take a break," Cook-Cottone said.

For students "who are experiencing anxiety, but otherwise can make it through the day," the schools might provide a phone for these children to contact parents or relatives during school hours.

Another helpful strategy would be to "develop a buddy system, pairing new children with students who already know the school and can mentor them," Cook-Cottone said.

She added that schools might also integrate coping and processing activities into their curriculums, such as was done following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Asking students to draw pictures, write stories or poems, and compile care packages to rescue workers can be very healing to the children, as well as to teachers and staff members.

Young students aren't the only ones to watch for signs of distress following such catastrophes.

While "older children have developed their own psychological coping strategies and are not as tightly linked to the responses of parents and those adults around them," they are not necessarily immune to the effects of tragedy either, she said.

All school counselors and psychologists, therefore, can take the following steps to help students upon their return to classes:

* Consult with teachers to support in-class processing of the event and ongoing media coverage.

* Provide ongoing screening and referral services for students.

* Provide on-site supportive counseling for students and families within the school setting.

* Support back-to-school transitions individually and by coordinating school efforts and strategies.

Parents, the most vital links to their children's recoveries from such devastation, can help them in many ways, including:

* Go by the child's school and visit inside if possible before the first day back to make it positive and a bit more familiar.

* Stay in the child's classroom during the initial drop-off transition and leave a phone number with the school psychologist and/or school nurse if the child has shown signs of anxiety or trauma symptoms.

* Give the child a transitional object, something small, to carry with them at school. It can be the parent's business card, a worry stone, an "I love you" note, a card with the parent's or relative's cell phone number on it. "The child can then easily access the transitional object when feeling anxious or alone," Cook-Cottone said.

* Be waiting for the child at the end of the school day.

Catherine Cook-Cottone
Assistant Professor, Counseling School and Educational Psychology
716-645-2484 x1073