Extreme weather events are forcing school closures. Experts explain the mental health toll on kids still reeling from a natural disaster.

Why returning to school after an extreme weather event can bring grief and anxiety.

Returning to school after an extreme weather event can bring up big feelings. Experts explain what's happening.
Returning to school after an extreme weather event can bring up big feelings. Experts explain what's happening. (Photo illustration: Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

In recent months, there have been a number of extreme weather events, from floods to hurricanes to wildfires, with countless communities left to deal with both physical and emotional devastation. For children attending school, there's an added layer to this trauma: school.

When natural disasters force classes to be canceled for an extended period of time, or result in the destruction of schools, what happens to the students? What is it like to return to school while still reeling from an extreme weather event, and how do school disruptions affect kids' well-being? Experts explain.

What's been happening

During the past several months, schools across the U.S. have been affected by extreme weather and poor air quality, including:

  • Ohio floods: In northeast Ohio, several schools had to close in late August due to the damage caused by heavy winds and rain. Some schools had electrical issues or lost power.

  • Hurricane Idalia: In the Tampa Bay area, schools closed for a period of time due to flooding and safety issues. South Carolina schools closed early or had remote learning days too.

  • Train derailment in Ohio: While not strictly a natural disaster, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. With a mushroom cloud looming over the area and sparking safety and air quality concerns, families were told to evacuate, meaning kids missed school.

  • Maui wildfires: The wildfires that raged through Lahaina, Hawaii, killed at least 115 people. It also destroyed or damaged multiple schools, homes and buildings. With the many effects of this — from families moving to children feeling too traumatized to come back — some schools are unsure how to move forward.

What experts say about school disruptions

School disruptions are a necessary precaution, either allowing kids to get home and take safety measures in advance of extreme weather or, afterward, protecting them from unsafe spaces. But when those disruptions drag on, they can affect other parts of life too.

“Children need routine and a feeling of safety,” says Kimberly Vered Shashoua, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who has worked with kids after hurricanes and other disasters.

Without this, kids might feel unsettled, adds mental health counselor Matthew Schubert, owner of Gem State Wellness. “When their school routines are upended by natural disasters or illnesses, they experience a loss of this structure and may grapple with feelings of aimlessness in the absence of their customary responsibilities to fulfill,” he tells Yahoo Life.

School disruptions can also cause social setbacks. “Schools serve as more than just academic institutions,” notes Alex Anderson-Kahl, a school psychologist and founder of the blog Healing Little Hearts. “They are pivotal social hubs for children to bond and connect.”

As research following pandemic-related school closures has demonstrated, extended disruptions and a lack of socialization lessen a child’s ability to practice social skills.

Why returning to school can be complicated too

Disruptions can take a toll, but it's important to acknowledge that students may also have mixed feelings about heading back to school after experiencing a devastating extreme weather event. Here's why.

Being surrounded by anxiety triggers

While going to school can increase feelings of normalcy, it can also ignite fear. “Some children might be afraid that they won’t see their parents again after school,” says Shashoua. “Other kids might be triggered by reminders, such as the rumble of a truck after an earthquake or a drizzle after a hurricane.”

Add in the fact that teachers already have enough on their plates, and the situation becomes even tougher. “Teachers are often not equipped to handle multiple children facing trauma responses, especially when there are lesson plans to get through,” Shashoua notes. As a result, she says, kids may learn to shut down and withdraw, which means they can’t process their feelings.

Experiencing grief and disorientation

Students are still dealing with the aftereffects of the disaster too. “Beyond immediate trauma, there’s the grief associated with the loss of personal belongings, homes or the familiar environment of their school,” says Anderson-Kahl. He adds that all of that loss and change can be disorienting and exacerbate feelings of insecurity and stress.

An inability to engage fully

Feeling safe and having shelter are basic needs that must be met before people have space to worry about anything else, like acing a math test. These natural disasters — which may involve relocating to temporary housing or awaken new fears about environmental dangers — set people back.

“Without these needs being met due to the aftermath of extreme weather, children will be unable to leave the angst and anxiety of having those needs unmet,” says Schubert. “It will not be possible for them to engage in other areas of life until safety and shelter is no longer their primary concern.”

In other words, even if they're physically at school, they may not mentally be there — which affects their ability to learn.

How can parents help?

According to Anderson-Kahl, parents play a crucial role in mitigating these mental health effects. Here are some ways they can get involved.

Interact with kids in fun and meaningful ways

An overarching tip: Spend time with your kids. Brainstorm how to combine fun, comfort and emotional support. “Many children express themselves through art and play,” Shashoua says. “Get on the floor with them to play or draw, and ask them about their feelings."

After starting the conversation, listen to and affirm what they say. “By encouraging their children to share their feelings and by actively listening, parents can provide much-needed validation and support,” Anderson-Kahl says.

Model healthy coping behaviors

Kids notice more than you might think. “Parents can play a pivotal role by demonstrating through their own behavioral responses how to cope with these disturbances,” Schubert says. He explains that during stressful times, kids are likely to watch their parents and behave similarly.

Be proactive

Natural disasters highlight the need for preparation. “Being informed and prepared for future events, discussing safety measures and ensuring that children are aware of safety plans can also be empowering,” Anderson-Kahl notes.

it also helps for parents to know how to talk about extreme weather with kids, whether it involves something local or a hurricane on the other side of the world.

Be compassionate and understanding with physical problems

Try to stay patient if something like bedwetting — which is associated with anxiety — becomes an issue after a distressing event. “It’s very normal for children to hold stress and fear in their bodies,” Shashoua adds. “Stomach issues, toileting issues and nonspecific physical complaints are normal.” In those situations, she recommends giving kids attention, care and time to rest.

Establish new routines

While change can be uncomfortable, it can also be an opportunity to set up a new “normal.” This can be particularly helpful when feelings of meaninglessness set in. If school is indefinitely closed, that might involve trying to create structure in the day for reading or other lessons.

“Parents can effectively assist children in navigating disruptions by introducing fresh routines and novel expectations, fostering a renewed sense of purpose and value for the children,” Schubert says.

Seek support from professionals and the community

Remember: No parent has to do this alone. “The broader community can offer invaluable support,” Anderson-Kahl says. He recommends professional counseling, organized group activities, community rebuilding efforts and shared resources.

Students might also want to give back to build a sense of empowerment. “Empowering children to be part of recovery and rebuilding efforts, whether through community clean-ups or fundraising, can also help them process their experiences positively,” he adds.

Ultimately, the toll a natural disaster takes on students and their families can't be ignored.

“While the physical devastation of extreme weather events is evident, the psychological toll, especially on children, can linger,” Anderson-Kahl emphasizes. “It’s imperative for all stakeholders, from parents to educators to communities, to recognize and address these challenges, ensuring children receive the support they need during such trying times.”