Welcoming Evacuees: Grades 6-8
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 areas 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 students abruptly lost what they had just gained. What is more, the crisis occurred before many had completely adapted to their new school assignments. Here are some tips about how their "adoptive" teachers can help the most:
- Behind the scenes, homeroom teachers may gather and share 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.
- 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."
- Homeroom teachers can 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.
- Buddies should be placed at a desk close to their new friends. (If the main buddy doesn't happen to be in the same classroom for all subjects, assign a subject-matter buddy where needed. Some exceptions 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."
- 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. 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.
- Homeroom teachers should send a carefully composed announcement to the families of children who started out with you. 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.
- 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 name of their child's buddy, along with a home phone number where the buddy may be reached. A very brief note with contact information from each separate subject-matter teacher might also be added.
- 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 something of their 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.