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Spotlight on Walden // Nov 13, 2012

Helping Students Deal With Natural Disasters

School Psychology Awareness Week, held Nov. 12–16, spotlights the important work of school psychologists in our nation’s educational system. Among the broad range of issues they face each day, one of the most challenging is helping students in a community that has just endured a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or fire.

Dr. Steven Little, a contributing faculty member in Walden University’s School of Psychology, has confronted these situations head on and has also conducted research on the subject. He has held faculty positions at multiple universities in the United States and New Zealand, and he also maintains a private practice doing consulting work in northern New York State. Dr. Little, who has published extensively in the areas of trauma and behavioral interventions, was editor of The School Psychologist and president of Division 16 of the American Psychological Association in 2002.

Spotlight on Walden asked Dr. Little to share his expertise on how to help students cope and recover emotionally after a natural disaster, especially in light of the recent devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy in the northeast.

Your research interests include a focus on behavioral interventions in schools, particularly working with children experiencing post-natural-disaster trauma. How did you become interested in this area of research?

My interest in behavioral interventions began when I was working in a state residential facility for developmentally disabled individuals back in the early 1980s. It was my first job after receiving my master’s degree, and I saw how efficacious these interventions can be. When I went back to work on my PhD, I chose a program that focused on this type of approach.

I got interested in working with children [dealing with] post-natural-disaster trauma when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I lived in New Orleans from 1972 to 1987 and received my bachelor’s from Tulane University, my master’s from the University of New Orleans, and my PhD from Tulane, all New Orleans institutions. When Katrina hit, I was living in and teaching in Riverside, Calif. My wife (also a licensed psychologist) and I saw the devastation in New Orleans on TV, and that led us to volunteer with the Red Cross disaster mental health service. We were sent to Louisiana and spent two weeks working with people who fled Katrina, including those living in shelters in central Louisiana.

Along with your wife, Dr. Angeleque Akin-Little, you were awarded a Faculty Excellence Fund Grant by Walden University to research children living in New Orleans following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and capture their experiences. What surprised you most from this research?

The greatest surprise we had was the positive aspects of the tragedy that many children, adolescents, and their parents were reporting. Many reported that they had a better quality of life living away from New Orleans and had no plans on returning permanently. When we compared the responses to those whose families who had decided to continue living in Lafayette (the location where we interviewed participants who did not return to New Orleans) and those who had returned to their old homes, the ones living in Lafayette appeared to have fewer anxieties over the storm. This got us to focus more on resiliency—and the positive outcomes of experiencing trauma—in our writing and research.

Did you learn anything from this research that could be applied to future post-natural-disaster trauma? Have you used this work elsewhere since Katrina?

The single most important thing that can be done is to get children back into a routine as soon as possible. That means getting children back to school and doing the normal things that kids do. We also worked in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the two earthquakes they experienced and also after the Pike River Mine disaster in New Zealand. You can’t eliminate the trauma, but you can minimize the negative effects by getting children back to a normal routine. Too much focus on the negative aspects of their experience will reinforce their negative emotions and possibly continue them for a longer period of time.

In the past weeks, many parts of the northeast United States experienced devastation as a result of Hurricane Sandy. What changes can educators, and especially school psychologists, expect to see in their students because of their experience with Sandy?

There will probably be increased levels of anxiety and uncertainty. These feelings need to be recognized but not become the center of focus. As I said before, the best thing is to get children back to a regular routine, and that is what educators can do to best minimize negative outcomes. A mistake many educators and psychologists sometimes make is to look for signs of negative outcomes too diligently. In other words, if you are looking for something, you will probably find it. Address children’s needs, but do not assume all children are experiencing negative outcomes.

What advice would you give to school psychologists who face natural-disaster situations, such as fires and tornadoes, in their communities?

I was a Boy Scout, and their motto is “Be Prepared.” You never know when a disaster will strike, and no place is immune from natural disasters. School psychologists need training in disaster response so that they will be prepared if a disaster hits their area. It probably will some day.