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On the trauma of keeping children safe: How to avoid emotional burnout

During the 22 February 2011 earthquake, around 10,000 education staff became first responders for Christchurch’s 150,000 school students. Not one child was injured on school grounds during the civil emergency, which caused severe damage around the city, killing 185 people and injuring many others.

University of Canterbury (UC) research into the ability of teachers to regulate their emotions in a disaster has resulted in invaluable insights and practical recommendations.

Following the devastating earthquake, UC College of Education, Health & Human Development senior lecturer Dr Veronica O’Toole interviewed twenty teachers about their experiences.

Teachers called on all their skills to attend to children’s safety, Dr O’Toole says.

“For all the teachers I interviewed, their priority was making sure they did not show their fear to prevent any further distress for the children and students in their care. They remained on duty until the last child was reunited with their caregivers.”

Christchurch teachers’ emotion regulation, goals and strategies for their immediate fear in the first moments of the earthquake have been compared internationally to that of first responders.

“Strategies teachers normally use to present a calm and professional image underpinned the regulation of these teachers’ fears at the time of the earthquake,” she says.

While some emotion regulation strategies may be effective in the moment, they can be less suitable longer term.

Experiencing intense fear at the time of a trauma can have negative emotional impacts in both professional and untrained first responders later on, she says. In addition to this, ongoing stressors related to increased job demands even in the normal course of events can lead to teacher burnout and attrition.

“Although this may be moderated by teachers’ positive emotions and love of their work, when occurring simultaneously with negative emotions – which was also evident in the Christchurch teachers – their internal skills and resources can become depleted over time, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.”

The findings of this research are an important reminder of the significant role played by teachers during the earthquake and throughout the prolonged aftershock sequence, Dr O’Toole says.

Her suggestions for teachers include:

• During daily reflections, try taking a different perspective of different events or try changing thoughts from a negative to a positive interpretation. Then review the emotional response to the revised thoughts. This cognitive reappraisal can be practised and learned as part of improving our emotional lives, and reducing emotional exhaustion.
• In disaster planning, under guidance, first thoughts (cognitive appraisal) and revised thoughts (cognitive reappraisal) could be included in rehearsals and drills, to anticipate the presence of emotions in the immediate and prolonged aftermath.
• Finally, the more aware that government and management can be of the potential for a hometown natural disaster to increase job demands and contribute to teachers’ emotional exhaustion and burnout, the better the support that can be given to teachers.

Recommendations from this research include:

• consideration of a social emotional learning (SEL) follow-up programme for first responder teachers, 
• incorporating learning more about emotions and research-informed practical skills to manage teachers’ ongoing emotions, health and wellbeing post-disaster.

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