Returning to school after natural disasters or other traumatic events: why it’s important
Children might spend time away from school when schools close because of natural disasters or other traumatic events, including floods, bushfires or pandemics. Children might also spend time away from school if they have a serious illness or for other personal reasons.
Returning to school is important because in-person learning and social interactions are good for children’s and teenagers’ overall development and social and emotional wellbeing. Familiar school routines, friendships and school connections can help children and teenagers after disruptions caused by events like bushfires, floods or pandemics.
Practical preparations for returning to school after natural disasters or other traumatic events
Practical preparations can help the return to school go smoothly for your child. A carefully planned transition can also help your child manage anxious feelings.
After a natural disaster or traumatic event, practical preparation starts with keeping up to date with school emails and other communications. These will give you important information about things like:
- damage to school buildings and facilities
- school reopening dates
- school location – the usual location or a temporary site
- class, timetable and transport changes
- sport and excursions.
The school might also offer transition support for students. This might include:
- tours or transition sessions, if the school is operating at a temporary site
- learning support to help students catch up
- resilience or disaster recovery support programs
- individual wellbeing sessions with school counsellors.
There are also practical things you can do to prepare your child for returning to school:
- Check local transport information about road closures. Do a practice run to work out the best route around them.
- If there has been damage to school buildings, try to visit the school with your child before it reopens. This will help your child know what to expect.
- Get your child back into a bedtime and sleep routine. You could reintroduce the routine a week or so before your child returns to school.
If your child is returning to school after an illness or a long hospital stay, the school should be able to help with this transition too. You can talk to the school about things like resilience, wellbeing and learning support. Your child might also need a private place to take medicine or manage other medical needs.
Feelings about returning to school after natural disasters or other traumatic events
If children and teenagers have time away from school because of natural disasters or other traumatic events, they might have mixed feelings about returning.
For example, they might be excited about learning in a classroom again and seeing their teachers and friends. But they might also feel uncertain, worried or anxious about:
- going through another disaster or traumatic event
- talking about other people’s disaster experiences
- seeing the damage caused by floods or bushfires on the way to and from school
- being behind on learning
- coping with a school routine again
- socialising in person with their peers
- being separated from you.
If your child feels uncertain or reluctant about returning to school, give your child plenty of love and support at home:
- Be confident and enthusiastic about your child going back to school. This sends your child the positive message that they’ll cope and have fun when they get back into the school routine.
- Talk and listen to your child’s feelings about returning to school, and let them know that their feelings are OK. For example, ‘It’s OK that your brother is excited and you’re nervous’, or ‘It’s OK to feel unsettled – it’s another big change’.
- Give your child choice about things like how they want to travel to school, what they want for school lunch, or what they want to do after school.
- Encourage your child to practise mindfulness, breathing exercises or muscle relaxation activities. These can help if your child is feeling very anxious.
- If your child is returning after illness, help them develop something they can say if people ask about their illness. And reassure them that there’s somewhere they can go to take medicine and so on.
If your child is feeling very anxious about returning to school, speak to school staff. There are plenty of things the school can do to help:
- Arrange a gradual return to school for your child, starting with short days and building up to full ones.
- Pair your child with a buddy.
- Organise for a teacher or aide to welcome your child at the gate.
- Arrange for your child to speak to the school counsellor or wellbeing officer.
Children and teenagers react in various ways to traumatic events like bushfires and floods. Some children react straight away, whereas others react weeks or months after the event. You can read more about supporting children and teenagers in the days and weeks after a traumatic event.
When children and teenagers are back at school after natural disasters or other traumatic events
Your child will probably have some ups and downs when they go back to school. Starting back at school can be tiring, especially for younger children. It might take a while for your child to get used to the school routine again.
The main thing is for your child to feel positive about being back at school and to know that there are people who can help them if they’re not feeling good.
These tips can help when children first go back to school:
- Make sure your child has plenty of healthy food, physical activity and sleep.
- Have one-on-one time with your child in the afternoon or evening. This could be reading a book with children before bed or going for a walk after dinner to stay connected with teenagers.
- Stick with family routines, and make time for family activities. For example, try to have family meals as often as possible or have family games or movie nights on the weekends.
- Try to stop what you’re doing and listen when your child wants to talk about school. Be patient if your child wants to tell you all the details.
- If your child doesn’t want to talk at all, try a conversation starter like, ‘Tell me one good thing and one less good thing about your day’ or ‘I noticed that you seem very sad today. I wonder why that is?’
- Help your child practise self-compassion if they’re feeling tired or finding it hard to adjust. For example, they could say, ‘I’m trying my hardest. It’s OK if I can’t remember how to do that maths problem’.
- Think about using rewards. For example, if your child goes to school for the week, they could get a reward like extra time for an activity they enjoy.
If children and teenagers are struggling with returning to school
Signs that children are struggling include changes in your child’s behaviour and emotions, like:
- sleeping more or having difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- changing their eating habits
- seeming less interested in doing their usual activities
- having difficulty concentrating
- withdrawing from you
- not actively participating in conversations
- being clingy, grumpy or angry more than usual
- refusing to go to school.
It’s natural for your child to behave in these ways sometimes. But if you notice these signs aren’t getting better after a few weeks or you’re worried about how your child is coping, it’s important to get help.
As a first step, talk with your child’s teacher or year coordinator. The teacher can let you know whether they’ve noticed anything unusual in your child’s behaviour or emotions at school. They might also have ideas for supporting your child or put you in touch with the school counsellor. You can also talk with your GP.