University of Illinois Extension
Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Children, Stress, and Natural Disasters:
School Activities for Children

Examples of Activities That Promote the Sharing of Experiences and Expression of Feelings


This section was adapted and reprinted from: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). How to Help Children After a Disaster: A Guidebook for Teachers. FEMA 219/November 1991. The original resource was developed by a team of educators and child mental health professionals from Alameda County, California. Additional material has been developed by Lynne Borden and Aaron T. Ebata, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.

The Process of Diffusing

Experiencing a disaster might cause some children to show a variety of symptoms of distress or problems. Teachers can help these children by assisting them in expressing their experiences and feelings. This is called DEFUSING.

DEFUSING is a supportive, personalized, safe interactive process between individuals in a small/or large group. The teacher provides clarity and complete expression of the event/experiences. It can be emotional. It can help children to develop coping skills and heal. Why encourage expression?

  • Expression often relieves tension, fear, or anxiety
  • Expression can help children "create a story" or "create meaning" out of an event and may give them a sense of coherence or control over their lives or the events in their lives
  • Expression allows children to make their needs known to others

The defusing process is most effective when you focus on the disastrous event(s) in this sequence:

  1. General events
  2. Event-specific experiences
  3. Personal experiences

EXAMPLE: If the event was an earthquake, then do the following:

  1. General: talk/draw/write about disasters in general: "Earthquakes happen when...," "Floods happen when...", etc.
  2. Event-Specific: talk/draw/write about the local disaster you just experienced.
  3. Personal: talk/draw/write about each person's personal experience in that disaster. NOTE: This process needs to conclude with quiet, reflective time.

Remember! You can use this after ANY KIND OF DISASTER.

Methods and Techniques

In using the General to Specific Approach, many methods and activities may be effective. Three suggested methods/techniques to use in your class to help defuse children after a disaster are:

  1. The Talking Method
  2. The Drawing Method
  3. The Writing Method

Questions and Themes

There are some LEADING QUESTIONS and suggested themes you can use to help children to express themselves in the talking method, the drawing method, or the writing method:

  • How have you gotten through rough times before?
  • What would you do differently if it happened again?
  • How did you help others? How would you help next time?

As the teacher, you might think of more leading questions to ask the children. Be sure that your questions are OPEN - ENDED, which means that they can not be answered by a "Yes" or "No" only. Open-ended questions facilitate verbal expression. Most of these questions would be helpful at any time after a disaster/event, from one day following, to one or more years later. Remember to use the previous questions as the basis for the activities that follow.

Here are some questions/themes that can be used with either the talking, drawing, or writing methods:

  • Where were you when it (the disaster/event) happened?
  • What were you doing?
  • Where were your friends?
  • Where was your family?
  • What was your first thought when it happened?
  • What were you thinking during it?
  • What did you see?
  • What changed? (Include lifestyle/living conditions!)
  • What did you hear?
  • What sound did it make?
  • What did you smell?
  • What did you do after it?
  • What did you "lose"? (Misplaced or broken, destroyed, etc.)
  • How did you feel?
  • What did other people around you do (during, after)?
  • What happened to the animals around you? (Pets, too)What do you do differently since the (disaster/event)?
  • How do you feel now?
  • What makes you feel better?

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