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Welcoming Evacuees: Grades 1-5

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Welcoming Evacuees: Grades 1-5
By Scholastic's Senior Child Development Consultant Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D.

Once again, teachers have a vital role to play in helping children during a natural disaster. Some in classrooms from towns, cities and states near the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina are welcoming children whose schools have been hit hard or designated as shelters. These teachers are making a vital contribution to the country's humanitarian efforts, not by focusing on the visiting children's traumatic experience, but by calmly welcoming the young visitors and providing them with a chance to get back to relative normalcy.

The start of a school year is ordinarily an exciting and hopeful time; but these young children abruptly lost what they had just gained. What is more, the crisis occurred before many had completely adapted to their new classroom assignments. Here are some tips about how their "adoptive" teachers can help the most:

  1. Behind the scenes, gather whatever information may be available about each "visiting" child, including the name and contact data about parents or current guardians. But don't expect to learn much. In most cases, there will be no records accompanying these children. It's a learn-as-you-go situation where their academic history is concerned.

  2. Welcome the newcomers to your classroom without fanfare or mention of what they have endured. For example, "Joe will be here with us while his school is being repaired. I know you will all do everything you can to make him feel at home."

  3. Assign a same gender buddy to each visiting child, choosing children you know to be most capable of being helpful, provided they are eager to take on this responsibility. Have a training meeting with the buddies before the newcomers arrive. Go over the concrete tasks they will have, such as showing the newcomers around the school.

  4. Buddies should be placed at the same table or a desk close to their new friends. Some exception should be made to no-talking rules for awhile, so that the buddies can explain all the little expectations of which they, as veteran class members, are already aware. In rare cases, the chemistry between the newcomer and buddy may not work. Then feel free to thank the helper, and assign someone else to "have a turn."

  5. In a broad sense, life in the classroom should be "business as usual." Staying focused on school is much better medicine than focusing on trauma and tragedy. School is about academics; but in your heart of hearts, you will know that your expectations and methods will have to change.

  6. Make the lessons briefer and for awhile less abstract. Keep homework assignments simple and not dependent on having materials available. Use small group activity, interactive assignments, and games. Switch gears often. And don't expect to cover material at the same pace as you would have under ordinary circumstances. Keep in mind that you are adding a new dimension to the curriculum by modeling consideration and quiet empathy.

  7. Send a carefully composed announcement to the families of children who started out in your classroom. Briefly explain the approach described above and ask for parents' help carrying it out at home. The parents of buddies should be given any additional relevant information.

  8. Make an effort to welcome the new families in a note written specifically for each of them. Invite them to phone for an appointment to meet when and if they may be ready or to send you notes with anything they may wish to share about their children. Tell them the names of their child's buddy, along with a home phone number where the buddy may be reached.

  9. Consider having a separate "Back to School" meeting for the newcomers' families. Whether or not these parents or guardians are responsive, keep sending information home to them about what is going on in school. Help them to feel that your school is a natural part of their support system, enabling their kids to resume ordinary lives. And in the event that any parents are eager for your friendship and advice, be ready with information about local resources, in and out of the school district, to support and counsel them and their children.