Educating Children in Emergencies

When earthquakes and other natural disasters occur, our thoughts turn to the children caught in the middle of these tragic events. And ongoing conflicts around the world continue to sweep up children in the crossfire and turmoil. Although children may survive such crisis events, will they be able to lead normal lives? The scars of pain and loss can be deep. Healing may take a very long time. How can teachers, and schools in general, help children cope with such emergencies?

When a crisis occurs, the first concern must, of course, be helping children through the immediate danger by offering food, shelter, and other aid. Children are incredibly vulnerable, and parents, teachers, community caregivers, and emergency workers can all play a role in ensuring that children receive care and attention during a crisis.

When the immediate danger is no longer present but the child’s environment is in complete disarray, food and other aid may not be enough to begin bringing back a sense of normal daily life. Many children have lost everything that was dear to them—their families, friends, and homes.

We know that schools are important stabilizing forces in communities. They provide a daily routine for children and opportunities for social interaction. Thus, schools convey messages of hope, consistency, and community. Re-establishing schools in disaster zones is indeed an enormous challenge but one that can have a lasting positive impact on children’s recovery. School personnel, community workers, and other caregivers can support children by emphasizing effective coping strategies and helping children deal with their emotional reactions. At the appropriate time, re-engaging children in their studies can also help them to feel connected to their future again.

Destruction of a child’s immediate familiar environment can be a frightening and traumatic experience. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, bring devastation to communities that can last for years. The impact of man-made disasters, such as war and environmental disasters, can last for decades. Aid agencies need community spaces where recovery services can be delivered. Even a makeshift school can provide a space for the delivery of care and support to children and their families. Schools, no matter how makeshift, help survivors to connect with a familiar and comforting community institution.

Many resources are available to help educators understand how to re-establish schools when disaster strikes. For example, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) is an open global network of representatives from nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies, donor agencies, governments, academic institutions, schools, and affected populations working together to ensure all persons the right to quality and safe education in emergencies and post-crisis recovery.

Escalating numbers of disasters, both man-made and natural, give cause for concern. As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure that the continuity of education can bring hope and healing to children who face an uncertain future. Indeed, it is our moral obligation.

Anne Bauer