Natural phenomena: awe inspiring and trauma inducing

Guest blogger Carrie Lynne Draper joins me in writing this post about supporting children affected by natural disasters. Carrie Lynne Draper, M.Ed, is the Executive Director of Head shot of Carrie Lynne DraperReadiness Learning Associates, a STEM Readiness organization, in Pasadena, CA,  growing children’s learning processes using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Focusing on the development of scientific dispositions through STEM and pedagogical design of equity-oriented STEM learning environments, Carrie has worked in early childhood STEM education for more than thirty years as a classroom teacher, program administrator and university instructor. As a long time NSTA member and past board member of NMLSTA, she  is frequently asked to present at national and state meetings on early learning STEM, NGSS and STEM Excellence. 

Welcome Carrie!

Caution sign about wildfire smoke air pollutionAs summer ended, some children in the United States had traumatic experiences due to natural phenomena. Forest fires in the western states once again displaced some families, closed schools, and contributed to dangerous outdoor air quality for many. Fires continue to burn, upending children’s routines. Flooding from heavy rainfall closed schools. Hurricane Harvey flooding and the resulting on-going damage from mold and trauma from disrupted routines make returning to school difficult.

Page view of the NASA Earth Observatory report on Hurricane IrmaElsewhere in the US, Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, tore roofs off homes, schools, and hospitals in the US Virgin Islands and left an unrecognizable landscape as tree trunks and branches, shorn of their foliage, appeared dead. Wind knocked down trees and wires carrying electricity and phone service, blocking driveways and roads and flooding caused other damage and displaced families and schools. More flooding, wind damage, and power outages were caused as Hurricane Irma moved across Florida and into Georgia.

When children feel threatened, their higher-level thinking can be inhibited. Even after routines return to normal or near-normal, learning may be impaired (Statman-Weil). Educators reach out to families and health experts to learn how we can best help our students.

Educators can support children by advocating for their program and state to develop and implement emergency plans for protecting children in disasters. See the 2015 report from Save the Children, Still at Risk: U.S. Children 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina to find out if your state has met four minimum emergency planning standards for child care and schools (page 13). The first standard is:

“Standard 1: A plan for evacuating children in child care.  The state must require that all child care providers have a written plan for evacuating and safely moving children to an alternate site.  The plan must include provisions for multiple types of hazards. Many states have different licensing requirements and regulations for different kinds of providers.”

“A rule is considered mandated if it is (1) in statute, (2) in regulation, or (3) provided by the relevant agency as mandatory guidance. Mandatory guidance includes forms, templates, and technical assistance that are provided to child care providers and are required to be completed or implemented.”

Valeria Strauss reports about the effects of a disaster on children in The Serious and Long-Lasting Impact of Disaster on School Children (Washington Post 9-11-2017). In her interview with David Schonfeld, head of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, he says,  “Children don’t easily get over it. They don’t forget it. They don’t go back to the way they were before.” Strauss also reported that the Center on Conflict and Development’s 2016 research brief, “The Impact of Natural Disaster on Childhood Education,” found the same effects on young people in Nepal from devastating earthquakes. 

Learn how you can support young children who have been through one of this year’s or previous natural disasters. Read Statman-Weil’s article, “Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms” in the May 2015 Young Children, including her “Suggestions for Helping Children Who Have Experienced Trauma.”  

Sesame Street’s short videos at Here For Each Other addresses “Big Changes” and includes a series about when a hurricane went through Seseme Street and blew away Big Bird’s nest. The characters model a variety of tools to support young children after an emergency: hugs, flashlight shadow play, and talking about what happened.

Natural and manmade disasters can happen anywhere and at any time.  It’s important for children to know the causes, what can happen, prevention, first aid and other related issues. (See the list of children’s books at the end of this post.) The support of children’s primary caretaker and other adults, including teachers,  can have the biggest impact on how a child recovers and heals after disasters. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Human Services, Emergency Preparedness & Response offers the Early Childhood Disaster Related resources for Children & Families website  providing fact sheets, tips on talking to young children, activities for children that help you prepare, respond, and recover from disasters.

Children touching fall yellow colored leavesNature continues the seasonal changes that we admire: yellows and reds are revealed in tree leaves in northern states and plants form seeds in interesting shaped pods. Losing your shelter due to a natural disaster and having limited access to food is a wretched way to learn about the needs of living organisms, needs children may have previously taken for granted if they were always provided with a secure home and plentiful food. 

When children can again play outdoors, these seasonal changes and the rebounding of living organisms in areas affected by natural disasters are opportunities for children to build their understanding of the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas, LS1.C All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow, and LS2.A Animals depend on their surroundings to get what they need, including food, water, shelter, and a favorable temperature. Animals depend on plants or other animals for food. They use their senses to find food and water, and they use their body parts to gather, catch, eat, and chew the food. Plants depend on air, water, minerals (in the soil), and light to grow. Animals can move around, but plants cannot, and they often depend on animals for pollination or to move their seeds around. Different plants survive better in different settings because they have varied needs for water, minerals, and sunlight. 

Screen shot of the NASA Earth Observatory page showing changes overtime to Mt Saint HelensNASA’s Earth Observatory article by Rebecca Lindsey, Devastation and Recovery at Mt. St. Helens, shows regrowth in Mount Saint Helen’s blast zone documented in a series of images captured by NASA’s Landsat series of satellites between 1979 and 2016. 

Lodgepole pine forests seen here in 2006 continue to grow back into areas that were burned in 1988, Burn area in Yellowstone National Park June 4, 2006 by Mav

Burn area in Yellowstone National Park June 4, 2006 by Mav. Lodgepole pine forests continue to grow back into areas that were burned in 1988.

In the December 2008 Teton Science Schools news story, “Park field trips spark student interest in wildfire,” Traci Weaver, Fire Communication and Education Specialist in Grand Teton National Park wrote, “When children describe a wildfire, they often reflect what they have heard from the news media: Fire is scary and it destroys everything.” She goes on to tell how students learned about fire’s role in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Fire scars are present for a long time, but “so is an amazing display of nature’s regeneration,” including 8-12 foot tall lodgepole pines, Douglas fir, and spruce trees, covering much of the burned acreage.  

We wish we could deliver more tangible support to educators and their children who have experienced natural disasters. There are other kinds of disasters in young children’s lives, such as separation from family members. This interview by Mary Kelly Persyn of the EmbraceRace community with Dr. Lisa Gutierrez Wang offers many ideas on how to address children’s questions, but also “instill a sense of security, empowerment, and hope” in those who have experienced family separation. It will also be helpful for those who experience natural disasters.

Additional resources, for preschool and up, depending. Use your understanding of your children and what trauma they have experienced to decide if these books will help them understand disasters and feel secure. Add books and other resources you have found helpful by making a comment to share your experience.


Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown. 2015. HMH Books for Young Readers


Disaster Zone: Hurricanes by Cari Meister. 2016. See other titles in the Disaster Zone series, including Earthquakes and Volcanoes.  Jump! Publisher.

Gopher to the Rescue!: A Volcano Recovery Story by Terry Catasus Jennings. 2012. Sylvan Dell Publishing.

Hotshots! By Chris L. Demarest. 2003. Margaret K. McElderry

Hurricanes by Matt Doeden. 2008. Lerner Publications Co.

Hurricanes! by Gail Gibbons. 2010. Holiday House. The book makes it clear that hurricanes don’t only affect the continental United States with maps include that include Caribbean nations and the US territories, the US Virgin Islands. The illustrated chart, “When a Hurricane is Approaching,” pictures how to prepare but focuses on evacuation. 

Hurricane Hunters! Riders On The Storm by Chris Demarest Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books; Big edition (January 1, 2006)

Ready. US Department of Homeland Security. Parts of the website about disasters are designed for use with children. 

Ready, Set . . . WAIT!: What Animals Do Before a Hurricane by Patti R. Zelch. 2010. SylvanDellPublishing.

Smokejumpers One to Ten by Chris L. Demarest. 2002. Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Volcanoes: Nature’s Incredible Fireworks by David L. Harrison. 2002. Boyds Mills Press.

W is for Wind: A Weather Alphabet by Pat Michaels, illustrator Melanie Rose. 2005. Sleeping Bear Press.

Wildfires by Matt Doeden. 2010. Capstone Press.

For upper elementary or use with younger children based on your understanding of your children and what trauma they have experienced.


A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg, illustrator Colin Bootman. 2011. Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.


The Firefighters Bookstore lists “real-life children story books so they know what to do in the chaos that arrives with a wildfire, earthquake or other disaster.”

 Awesome Forces of Nature: Howling Hurricanes by Louise and Richard Spilsbury. 2004. Heinemann Library.

Hurricanes by Seymore Simon. 2003. HarperChildrens.

Inside Hurricanes by Mary Kay Carson. 2010. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

Amazing Science: Eye of the Storm — A Book About Hurricanes by Rick Thomas. 2005. Picture Window Books

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6 Responses to Natural phenomena: awe inspiring and trauma inducing

  1. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children online article “10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know: For children who have experienced trauma, learning can be a big struggle,” says, “With trauma, the symptoms can go largely unrecognized because it shows up looking like other problems: frustration, acting out, difficulty concentrating, following directions or working in a group.”

  2. Karen Nemeth says:

    This is a great topic! Here is a collection of resources and tips to support children who are English learners in times of crisis and fear. I always worry about how it must feel to see images or to see people acting concerned, yet to not understand the language.

  3. Fran Simon, M.Ed. says:

    Wonderful and timely resource, Peggy and Carrie! Thanks for offering such important guidance. Here are a couple of other resources that may be helpful:
    Webinar Recording:
    Trauma-Informed Early Education Classroom Design: Designing Child and Family-Friendly Spaces for Recovery from Trauma, by Ileen Henderson of Bright Spaces, Bright Horizons Foundation
    Upcoming webinar (and the recording after the live webinar is over):
    Supporting Young Children and Families Impacted by Immigration Policies, by Wendy Cervantes, Michael McNeil, MD and Hannah Matthews
    (This webinar will address medical interventions for children who experience trauma as a result of harsh immigration policies)

  4. Marie Faust Evitt says:

    Thank you for covering this important topic, Peggy and Carrie.

  5. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    An update on the effects of the wildfires in California:
    ” Steve Herrington, the Sonoma County superintendent, said about 180 schools were closed between Oct. 9 and Oct. 13….”As the school year resumes, “there will be a real need to address the trauma and long-term displacement that so many of our students, their families and their teachers have experienced,” Herrington said.” About 400 students and 200 staff members have reported losing their homes.

  6. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    As the wildfires in California and other states continue to damage communities, the counties are issuing press releases with help for parents on how to help their children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, , is a recommended resource.

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