Tips for Educators

NOTE: Sadly, I have had the experience of re-opening a school following 9/11 and operating a school after a disaster (CFO suicide).  I have also worked with teachers and administrators following disasters of a wide ranging sort to enable students to re-start their education.  In some instances, the original school is unavailable for use due to its destruction.  In other instances, many students have left the affected areas and are now attending new schools. 

While these tips have broad applicability, each situation must be viewed within their own context and culture.  A workshop on this topic will occur at the Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference held in Atlanta Georgia in February, 2020. The tips/suggestions here will be demonstrated and discussed in detail.


  • It is wise not just restart your classes as if nothing happened to students and their communities.  We do way better if we acknowledge the disaster that has transpired.  Ignoring it is unwise psychologically; the ways of dealing with it are varied, as described below.  Think of it as “owning” one’s history.

  • Most students returning to school will have their autonomic nervous systems on high alert.  For learning, we need to lower that alert system – not just on the first day back but throughout the school day during the first weeks that school is in session.  Students operate off different timetables as to when and how negative and traumatic events affect them.  The timing (fast or slow) is not a judgment on the student and their emotional capacities.   Indeed, once traumatized, the trauma does not disappear; it can be ameliorated. 

  • Administrators and teachers (who don’t have home rooms) should greet and welcome students back at the school’s front entrance.  If this has not been a tradition at one’s school, it is a good tradition to start before a disaster actually occurs.  When greeting, try to refer to the students by name; greet the family members who dropping them off (and may be traumatized too) and say hello to the bus drivers, ideally by name too.

  •  Make sure there are snacks around — fruit, cheese, juices for children and adults.  Food availability is an excellent ice breaker when there is stress.  So is music – not rock music but soothing music.   And, one can put other non-food items out in scattered locations as described below.

  • Each classroom should engage before the actually school day starts or at the start of a class with some activity to defuse the autonomic nervous system.  There are a myriad of approaches.  Consider having students outline their dominant hand with their non-dominant hand.  Feather tracings of one’s hands are effective too.  Give students an ice cube in a paper towel and ask them to watch it melt and describe what they see and feel and hear. Balance on one foot for 30 seconds. Have construction stations with manipuables there – glue, paper, stick-on items, Legos or other building materials, pipe cleaners.

  • Try an exercise that uses the senses: sight, sound, touch, hear, taste and add in balance. Movement too. This can be done as a group. Start with the question: What do you hear now?  Any answer will do. The point is to re-set the brain.

  • Consider the learning materials that were there on the day classes ended and how those materials could be re-ordered or changed to make what is being done in class post-disaster more relevant.  If you are going to use different materials (a good idea), explain to students why you are making the changes. This is not a suggestion to use “disaster” related materials.  There are many materials following any disaster that could be used: poems, songs, newspaper articles, historic material, stories, academic material that would be covered later but can be covered sooner due to its relevance.  The point is flexible content use.

  • Create opportunities for students to express their emotions if they want to do so. Some will not feel comfortable; others will willingly share.  Keep a bowl of Kimochis on your desk or other similar items that students can take to help them identify emotions and relieve stress.   Stress balls, spinning toys, fidgets help too. 

  • Try to use Green/Red or Yes/No blocks that each student can have as a set to decide if they want to engage and participate in what is being offered in class. They place their choice on their desktop.  No tests for a while either!

  • Try engagement activities across the institution: installation art initiatives; group get togethers; conversations galore.  Art displays; chalking on walls and floors; create a space and place within the institution where there is no tension. 

  • Remember anniversaries and ponder how to handle them well in advance.  Tangible items may be preferable to speeches and the like. 

  • Teachers and administrators should not forget self-care either.  Aromas from candles help in a classroom (and at home).  So do flowers – in school and at home.  So does time in hot water; a warm towel on one’s forehead during the school day or a bath/shower when home are helpful.

  • Importantly, do not ignore what happened. Silence is not a solution. Helping children re-start is key and that can be a slow process.  What matters is that students find a place and space where they can feel safe and express themselves if they so choose.