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Special Topic: Supporting Children in the Aftermath of Sandy

Infants, Toddlers, & Preschoolers:

The aftermath of a major storm such as Sandy can profoundly impact young children and leave them feeling scared, upset and insecure. It is normal for children to react to an event like a hurricane and to interpret it as a personal threat. A child’s reaction will vary depending on several factors, e.g., the degree and type of exposure, age/development, previous experiences with any perceived/real threats, etc. Reactions can include behaviors such as withdrawal, tantrums, crying, and clinginess, changes in sleep or appetite, and regression.

Major disruptions often occur not only within their homes and families, but also with their childcare settings, caregivers and peer groups. As a result the things that keep children feeling safe – such as routines, familiarity, and emotional availability of caregivers – are compromised. How families and caregivers react to traumatic events and their response to the needs of children in their care will directly impact a child’s social emotional wellbeing. While resources are likely to be very limited, it is essential to respond during the storm’s aftermath in ways that help children feel safe and by doing so, minimize any further distress.

Strategies for Infants & Toddlers:

  • While infants and toddlers may not understand a major event has just happened, they often sense this from their environment and caregivers. They will experience strong feelings in their bodies (e.g., tension, pounding heart) and will need a caregiver’s support in order to soothe. Because children respond so strongly to the emotions of others, caregivers need to reduce their own stress so they can be a calm soothing presence for children. Provide calm music, hold/comfort the child, and offer verbal reassurance.
  • Limit any changes to the child’s classroom/ peer group or caregivers. If a change of location is necessary, try to bring familiar items from the classroom (e.g., favorite toys, pictures). Creating a Comfort Box can help children transition to new environments. Be sure to familiarize infants and toddlers with any new caregiver; do this while a familiar adult is present.
  • Try to maintain classroom routines. Routines give children a sense of security. They help children understand what will happen next and will reorganize them after the chaos of a major storm.
  • You may notice an increase in clinginess and startled responses, or that new fears have developed. There may be changes in a child’s appetite or sleep patterns. Be patient. Know these are typical following a scary event and should decrease over time. Continue to provide reassurance and extra support. Communicate about these regularly with the child’s parent, while offering them reassurance and ways they can support their child.
  • Children may have more challenging behaviors such as hitting, biting, or refusing to follow rules. Use positive guidance strategies to provide support and redirection for these behaviors.
  • Separations, especially from parents, may be more stressful. Support parents in developing a goodbye ritual or ask them to leave a comfort item with the child, such as a parent’s sweater, glove, or a child’s favorite toy. Remind the child when the parent will pick them up, e.g., after snack time.
  • While children are not at risk of danger, certain objects or activities may cause them to feel this way. Observe children to learn what these triggers may be and try to avoid them. Offer reassurance by reminding them of familiar items or events (that appear to be a trigger) and show them how they work and/or explain what happened in a way they can understand.

Strategies for Preschoolers:

  • If relocating children in your center to a new space is necessary, consider bringing or making familiar classroom items such as picture schedules, favorite toys, and items from their cozy area. Also consider putting together a Comfort Box of comfort objects to support the classrooms transition.
  • If it is not possible to keep the classroom children and teaching staff together, let children know where their teachers /friends are, so they know they are safe. An absent teacher may leave a message/letter for the class. Plan to familiarize children with any new staff; do this in the presence of a familiar adult or caregiver.
  • In the best way possible, follow the same routines. Knowing what will happen next gives children a feeling of security and a sense that things can move towards what is normal. Use picture schedules and familiar items to help smooth transitions.
  • Engage children in activities that will give them the needed distraction from the stressful events around them.
  • It is important for staff to take care of their own stress, so they can be a calm and soothing presence for the children in their class, as well as for parents in need. See Teacher Stress Kit for ideas.
  • Avoid adult-to-adult conversation about the storm or media such as TV, radio, or computer. Children often interpret this to mean that the event is not yet over or is happening again.
  • Children may have a need to talk about the event. Monitor these conversations and answer any questions giving brief answers that are factual and reassure children they are safe.
  • Help children with any strong feelings or nervous energy they have. Name/talk about feelings and provide gross motor activities or stretching to help children regulate their bodies and feelings.
  • It is not unusual for a child to regress in areas where they used to be independent. Give children the support they are looking for and focus their abilities.
  • For challenging behaviors, use positive guidance strategies to redirect the behaviors, remind children of the rules and choices, and maintain emotional and physical connection with each child.
  • Children can be triggered by things that make them feel as though they are experiencing the event all over again. Briefly talk about the difference between events and reminders. Try to avoid known triggers for the child. Reassure the child he is safe.

Additional Resources: