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Natural disasters impact children’s longterm learning abilities, new study suggests

"We need to take the long view in our short term responses."

The Marysville primary school lies in ruins after the bushfires destroyed the town, some 100 kilometres northeast of Melbourne on February 9, 2009 as raging Australian wildfires left at least 131 people dead amid a landscape of charred homes, bodies and devastated communities. (Credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
The Marysville primary school lies in ruins after the bushfires destroyed the town, some 100 kilometres northeast of Melbourne on February 9, 2009 as raging Australian wildfires left at least 131 people dead amid a landscape of charred homes, bodies and devastated communities. (Credit: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

As climate change intensifies natural disasters, researchers want to understand how the tumult impacts children’s mental health and learning abilities. That’s the subject of a new study published in the journal Child Development on Thursday, which found that natural disasters may increase the chance that a child’s learning abilities will be reduced — even years after the event.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne reached that conclusion after examining the academic scores of more than 24,600 primary school children in Victoria, Australia two and four years after major bushfires fueled by a record-breaking heat wave in 2009.

That year, temperatures hit 117°F in rural Victoria on February 7. Temperature records had been breaking across southern Australia for the past month amid an ongoing heat wave, and that day, as winds gusted at over 60 miles per hour, multiple bush fires broke out — among the worst in the country’s history.

Over the next few weeks, 1.1 million acres burned, destroying two townships and killing 173 people, including 35 children and young people. Sixteen children were orphaned, and many others were left injured and traumatized. Three schools and at least three pre-schools were destroyed, leaving many staff and students living in temporary housing for up to two years.

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The situation in Victoria is similar to what recently played out in Butte County, California last November. The Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, and the entire town of Paradise was wiped out — it was the worst fire in California’s history.

The Australian researchers found that reading and numeracy skills did not progress as they should have for the students attending school in areas highly affected by the 2009 fires. Test scores in these areas were lower than the scores for children in areas more highly impacted by the bush fires.

In other words, a reduction in learning levels corresponded with higher levels of bushfire impact.

Graph depicting test scores across different levels of fire impact. (Credit: University of Melbourne)
Graph depicting test scores across different levels of fire impact. (Credit: University of Melbourne)

According to Lisa Gibbs, one of the study’s authors from the University of Melbourne, a child’s learning abilities will typically progress each year. But that wasn’t the case for the children in the most affected areas of Victoria. “What we found was that actually, for these kids… they didn’t progress as you would’ve expected,” she told ThinkProgress.

Most studies examining the impact of natural disasters on children’s learning abilities look at a short-term window, up to three years after the event. Thursday’s study is one of the few to study a longer time period, explained Gibbs.

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“I think it’s probably self-evident that people will experience distress and that will affect their ability to function — that’s just a normal response to a very abnormal experience,” she said. “What I was interested in was: How does that play out over time?”

Taking a longer-term look is important, the study notes, because some symptoms might not show up immediately. There’s also the potential for these early impacts on children to “affect perceptions of capability, aspirations, and long-term educational and employment pathways.”

According to the study’s researchers, one of the reasons why students’ numeracy and reading abilities were highly affected was likely because these skills require higher levels of concentration. Another reason could be that the underlying cognitive skills required for these subjects are known to be impacted by early trauma experiences.

But there are also outside factors that may attribute to reduced learning. It may be the result of reading at home decreasing due to parents also experiencing mental health impacts from the fires. Or it could be that a significant amount of the educational infrastructure in the area was damaged.

“I think all too often, historically people have had these thoughts that oh, kids are resilient and oh, we can bounce back… And while many kids are able to cope and adapt effectively following disasters, following trauma, a very sizable portion of youth exhibit a range of consequences, ones that affect their mental health, their social and emotional well-being,” said Ryan Kilmer, a professor of psychology at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Kilmer studied mental health in children after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

This new study’s general findings, Kilmer told ThinkProgress, appear to be in line with other academic literature that has found disasters — and trauma more generally — impacts “scholastic functioning.”

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Trauma can manifest in a variety of ways in children, whether that’s anxiety, sadness, acting out, headaches, stomach aches, or difficulty sleeping. “When we start looking at these different effects, particularly in combination,” said Kilmer, “[they] can contribute to problems with attention and concentration and therefore difficulties with learning.”

But, as the study’s researchers noted, there’s the chance that the negative impacts of trauma can be mitigated by schools taking a proactive approach to their post-disaster response. For instance, schools in Australia following the bushfires did initiate support programs, such as government-sponsored training programs for teachers, principals, and support staff to address mental health and learning abilities among students.

“What we’re trying to understand is: Can we make a difference here?” said Gibbs.

And as climate change continues to make storms and wildfires more intense, it raises questions about how these type of resilience-building efforts can help children better cope, Gibbs said.

Kilmer agreed. “People really see schools as such a source of continuity, of structure — a way we can reclaim normalcy in the context of what may be a new normal,” he said.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina hit, there have been more evidence-based post-disaster interventions that Kilmer believes can help address social, emotional, and mental health concerns in children. And, more broadly than responding to natural disasters, there’s been a growing acknowledgement of the need for “trauma-informed schools,” he said.

It’s not just about the children, but also about parents and teachers, he emphasized — both in helping them cope with their own trauma and helping them understand the best ways they can help children cope.

After this December’s winter break, more than 2,500 students in Paradise, California returned to school after the deadliest fire in the state’s history. To help, the Butte County Office of Education made addressing childhood trauma a top priority. It established a new position — coordinator of trauma response and recovery — and more than 200 volunteer mental health professionals came to the region to work with staff and students.

Longer-term plans, however, are still being developed. “We’ve pretty much been in crisis mode up until this point,” Scott Lindstrom, the trauma and response coordinator, told EdSource. “We’re just now starting to think about creating a larger vision.”

In post-disaster contexts, responses and decisions often happen quickly. But “we need to recognize when were are responding in the immediate aftermath that there are going to be these longer-term implications,” Kilmer said.

After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, families were still displaced two years later. And they were still struggling, he said, including needing academic support for their children.

These issues are “really salient” in the initial days and months after a disaster, Kilmer said. But the impacts last longer than that — which means, according to Kilmer, “we need to take the long view in our short-term responses.”