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Tips for Teaching After Natural Disasters and Other Trauma

Traumatic events can have a lasting impact on your students. What can you do in the classroom to help?

By 6 min read

It would be fair to say that the last few weeks have been a challenging time for everyone across Japan affected by Typhoon Hagibis and its aftermath.

The worst of the storm passed Japan just over a month ago. Today the death toll stands at 88, with many more injured and even more still rendered homeless.

As someone who’s lived here most of my adult life, I’ve experienced my fair share of typhoons, earthquakes and even the threat of a volcanic eruption. However, Typhoon Hagibis hit closer to home than anything else ever has during my time in Japan.

Thankfully in my little pocket of Chikuma City in Nagano Prefecture, apart from losing electricity for about five hours, we were OK. But just a matter of minutes down the road entire neighborhoods were submerged, with thousands evacuated and widespread flood damage. Luckily, the city recorded no fatalities.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary though.

In scary events, the ones who are among the most affected, but conversely also probably the least vocal about their feelings, are children. Even a minor unsettling incident can have deep and lasting implications for a young mind. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, approximately one in every four children has suffered a traumatic event that has impacted them to the extent it affects their education.

English teachers need to be especially mindful of this when the time comes to resume classes after something traumatic happens.

[…] approximately one in every four children has suffered a traumatic event that has impacted them to the extent it affects their education.

Despite no reports of any injuries among my students, on that first day back at school after the typhoon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that things weren’t right. The students seemed restless, agitated, much less responsive than usual and easily distracted.

This may have been a case of minor trauma as a result not just of the typhoon itself, but of the several days of being in “disaster mode.” Kids are impressionable and even seeing a TV report showing flooding in an area near where they live can affect them.

In much the same way as we approach teaching classes with special needs students, we should also recognize that victims of trauma are also unique. Each will have their own story, their own symptoms and in time will develop their own coping mechanisms. It’s important to consider that trauma can come from a variety of sources and the severity of the trauma and its duration depends on this context, too.

So what are some of the things that English teachers can do to help their students during traumatic times?

1. Maintain a routine

As an example of more extreme trauma, in Osaka a few years ago, I had to contend with especially tragic circumstances at one of my elementary schools.

One of the fifth-grade homeroom teachers, a man younger than me and who seemed fit, healthy and full of life, died very suddenly. To this day I do not know the circumstances of his death, nor did I ask. My concern was a class of kids, lost and cut adrift now that the man they saw as a second father had been snatched away from them by circumstances beyond their control. Unfortunately, guidance from senior management was non-existent and it was left to me to fumble my way forward largely on my own.

I was determined to try and keep the class going along the same, well-established routine as much as I could. Keeping things predictable provides trauma victims with a sense of comfort and reassurance. We continued to use the same greetings, the same kinds of activities and practice drills and games that the children enjoyed. What these kids needed was continuity, a reassurance that even with their teacher gone, life would go on, they would be OK and class would continue as they expect it to.

2. Build relationships and trust

As things transpired, the new teacher that came in to replace my dearly departed colleague was a younger teacher, and she lacked both the charisma and commanding presence of her predecessor. This wasn’t her fault. Like me, she had probably had no training in how to handle this situation either. But with her struggling to even get students to follow basic instructions, and class control becoming more of an issue with each lesson, it was on me to form bonds and try to get them back onside.

My biggest piece of advice here is this: Be sincere. It’s OK to let the students express themselves, and it’s also OK for you to open up a bit too. Don’t put on a false façade of “genki-ness.” It’s OK to feel down, it’s OK to be sad, and we share in both the good times and bad times together.

3. Learn about triggers and how to avoid them

One of the trickiest aspects of managing classrooms where trauma is an issue lies in knowing what triggers negative responses in your students and how to avoid it. In the case of my class in Osaka, it was any direct reference or mention by name of their former teacher. However, in many cases, the triggers are less obvious. We all handle trauma in different ways, and this is where communication between you and your colleagues is absolutely crucial.

You may only spend one or two hours per week with a specific class. Their homeroom teacher spends around seven hours with these kids every day and knows them better than some of their own parents do. Use that knowledge and that experience to your advantage, and don’t be shy to ask about any students you have concerns for. Even if your colleagues may not be able to explain to you fully the exact nature of a student’s trauma or what caused it, they will appreciate you taking an interest in their welfare.

At the end of the day, any information at all that gives you some insight is useful.

Trauma is never an easy thing to contend with, and in taking care of your students and your colleagues, it’s equally important that you take time to deal with your own residual trauma from such an event. Talk to friends, family, and if necessary seek the appropriate help from a mental health professional.


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