Commissioner's Column: Back to School Routines Can Benefit Young Flood Victims

Friday, August 20, 2010 | 07:17am
As students across Tennessee head back to school, it is important for us to remember this is the first time many students will re-enter a classroom since the severe weather and flooding that occurred in May. 
The back to school process can become part of the healing process. Returning to the classroom provides two key recovery elements for children and youth who have experienced a traumatic event: routine and recreation. Maintaining a normal routine that includes time for recreational activities and expression of feelings through conversation, writing or art can help children return to pre-crisis stress levels at a much quicker pace. Parents and teachers should encourage and provide opportunities for children to express themselves about their feelings surrounding the events that occurred in May. 
A return to the classroom also creates an opportunity for parents, teachers and other adults like coaches or extracurricular activity leaders to identify youth who may be struggling to cope with the stress and life changes of a traumatic event. Most importantly, it creates the opportunity to begin taking note of any changes in a student’s behavior or school performance. These changes often reflect a more serious problem for the child and their family that needs intervention and assistance.
Children and youth react to stressful situations in a variety of ways. Some reactions occur right away while others take weeks or even months for signs of troubled behavior to appear. It is important to know that most children will recover from the stress of the floods without professional intervention. The majority will cope with their anxiety through the tools mentioned earlier: returning to school with its normalized routine and opportunities to talk and socialize with peers. If children later in the school year develop trouble sleeping or eating, exhibit behavior problems in school, or have a change in school performance, it is time to seek help. 
Of the more than 67,000 Tennessee households registered with FEMA, nearly one-third include children under the age of 18. To help children, parents, and significant others deal with the after-effects of disaster, our department has implemented a crisis counseling program called the Tennessee Recovery Project. The Tennessee Recovery Project, made possible by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has already distributed information to flood-affected school systems across Tennessee and is currently meeting with school administrators and officials to offer assistance with student needs assessments. The project’s primary function is to distribute information and educational materials and provide support to disaster-affected families about the common but differing reactions children and adults exhibit following a crisis. 
I encourage families and school systems to take full advantage of all information and assistance offered by the Tennessee Recovery Project and to utilize the back to school season as a time for positive change and healing from May’s traumatic events. To locate Tennessee Recovery Project services in your area, please contact the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities’ Office of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-560-5767.
Virginia Trotter Betts, MSN, JD, RN, FAAN, is Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.

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