Teachers factor quakes into planning

Anxiety issues, earthquake drills command more attention this year

Teachers factor quakes into planningBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

As hundreds of teachers across the community turn their attention to the impending return to school, many are giving more weight to a new factor this year — earthquake preparedness.

While the mental and emotional fragility of residents — both children and adults — has been well documented in the wake of an earthquake sequence that included historic tremblors and thousands of aftershocks, many educators hope that a return to the routines dictated by the academic year may help reestablish a degree of stability.

“All of my friends and colleagues are under an extreme amount of stress,” said Lorraine Balek Beeson, a licensed professional clinical counselor who recently retired after 33 years with Sierra Sands Unified School District.

Although she was out of state during the quakes, “I heard immediately first-hand from friends who were traumatized by the event. It was very hard to watch my beloved community suffer from afar and not be there to help.”

She cited a recent post by Maria Holm, a licensed clinical social worker with Ridgecrest Regional Hospital (see RRH on Facebook), who noted that many residents are suffering from acute stress disorder.

“Maria was dead on in her writing,” said Beeson.

Teachers are dealing simultaneously with issues ranging from recovering their personal losses to preparing for the arrival of new students — “and being ready mentally and physically for what is bound to be a difficult school year when the entire community has had no respite from the earthquakes.”

Many residents are still not sleeping soundly, which can take a toll on personal health. “I’d advise parents and teachers to take care of themselves before the next large earthquake so they have the fortitude and presence of mind to take care of others,” said Beeson. “This is one of those ‘put your air mask on yourself first’ situations.”

Practicing self care can increase chances of remaining calm and present in a crisis. Modeling that behavior for children is also important, she said.

She noted that building this kind of resilience is critical, and recommended that four key elements be practiced and implemented to facilitate that: mindfulness (being present in the moment, taking note of surroundings, finding meaningful experiences to share with family), physical exercise, social support (as demonstrated in much of the community response following the earthquakes) and adopting a growth mindset.

The final element, said Beeson, assumes that rather than having a fixed outlook of pessimism or optimism, “Researchers have found that you can train your mind to be positive and build resiliency.”

She said that refraining from complaints, and looking instead for silver linings, can help build this growth mindset. “Try listing the things you are looking forward to … hang around people who are infectious with their positive attitudes.”

Beeson also noted that there is a difference between worry and anxiety. “Worrying, which is normal, includes specific concerns which stem from reality.” Worry can prompt planning, which facilitates security and resilience.

“Worry overlaps with anxiety when it goes out of control and is no longer useful.”

“I think the most important thing any of us can do for our children is reassure them that, just as their parents will keep them safe and protected at home, we will do the same while they are at school,” said Kathleen Konopak, a second-grade teacher at Las Flores Elementary School.

As a 32-year veteran in the district, she said that once the earthquakes occurred she started looking for resources she could introduce to her students that might help them.

“We know that the kids have been through some potentially traumatizing events,” said Konopak.

“In order for them to learn, they have to be able to remain calm and focused. You have to deal with your children as people before you deal with them as students — for the sake of their well-being, but also for the sake of their ability to learn.”

Through her research, Konopak found two books “Earthquakes” and “When the Ground Shakes.”

“Together they are a really great combination,” said Konopak. The former, published by National Geographic, delves into the science behind earthquakes and turns the enigmatic incidents into a teachable moment.

The latter puts into simple terms the practical logistics of what happens during an earthquake, how we can prepare and what to do when one hits. “This book talks about how most earthquakes only last about 15 seconds.”

One of the recommendations is to pick a fun song to sing in the event of an earthquake. “So we will get to vote for a song to sing and add that to our duck-and-cover drills.”

Konopak noted that, if another earthquake happens, the schools are actually some of the safest places for the children to be.

“I tell my students that our schools are held to a higher standard of safety and structural integrity than any other place except for hospitals,” she said. “And when disasters hit, we are ready. We probably have more drills than just about any other place you can find.”

She said that SSUSD spends a lot of time planning and preparing for a multitude of scenarios. There are first-aid teams, supply caches and systems in place to make sure all children are accounted for and cared for until reunification.

“I also know that there are parents who have had trouble letting their kids out of their sights,” said Konopak. “That would be me, too! I would want to be with my child if something bad happened! So there’s also a need to reassure parents that we are going to take care of their children.”

Signs of stress and anxiety parents can watch for in their children, she said, are complaints of “headache” or “stomach ache” — which are sometimes indications of emotional or mental distress.

Beeson agreed that when anxiety becomes generalized, it can manifest as a physical symptom.

One technique she recommended for helping children cope with worries is to help them verbalize those concerns, then teach them to put a lid on them. “This can be accomplished with a ‘worry box’ with younger kids or a ‘worry journal’ with older kids.”

Both Konopak and Beeson also noted that talking to children up front — about fears, concerns, plans, routines — can help alleviate some of that anxiety.

Many teachers looking at the return to school are dealing with these same issues in their own children — and in themselves.

Beth Smosna, teacher and mentor with the district, served as the summer school principal this year.

“Our community was given a gift,” she said. School was out when both quakes hit. “This was a wake-up call, and all of us have had a chance to evaluate how we can improve our response if and when the next hits.”

She recalled that the 6.4 quake was scary, but felt familiar to her, since she had experienced similar incidents as a child.

She took the same precautions many other residents did — checking supplies, securing fragile items, coming up with plans and going over them with family.

Like many, she remained on alert, but life had mostly returned to normal when the 7.1 quake hit. Her husband was not there, but she and her children huddled, as planned, under the table.

“Something was different,” she recalled. “This shaking was unlike anything I had ever felt. And it didn’t stop. In fact, it somehow changed from a side-to-side shaking to the feeling that someone had lifted our house from its foundation and was shaking us about like a toddler emptying a toy bin.

“Then the lights went out, my daughter screamed and the flight instinct in me took us from our home. We huddled on our sidewalk, feeling every movement of our earth under us, and we waited.”

She reassured her children, her husband returned, and the family lingered in the street as neighbors checked on one another.

But the days that followed offered a different kind of difficulty. “Every movement set our kids off, and our dogs too.”

She immediately saw signs of anxiety — crying, shaking while sleeping, not sleeping, being easily startled.

One critical piece in the family’s recovery was talking about the earthquake — about everything — and coming up with a plan.

“It was difficult, and our children certainly did not want to talk about it, but once they saw that Mom and Dad had a plan, everyone knew the plan, and we all had a role in carrying it out, I saw the stress and anxiety, slowly, start to lift from their faces.”

Smosna also saw how her children carried that approach with them. “My 12-year-old was babysitting her cousins the other night, and asked me, ‘What do I do in my aunt’s house if there’s an earthquake?’” Going over an amended plan was all Smosna’s daughter needed to feel at ease.

Now that the most acute signs of trauma have passed, she said, other symptoms have replaced them — irritability, fearfulness, catastrophic thoughts, over- reactions.

She chalks these symptoms up to heightened stress, and advises people to exercise patience and seek out activities, connections and service opportunities that foster healing.

“Talk. Often. About the earthquakes, but about any other thing you can think of. Unplug from devices and interact with one another — even if it is to read a book aloud or play a board game. Go on walks.

“All of these things bring about communication and human connection. Those are most needed in times like this when we all have the urge to simply retreat, hide or isolate.”

She added that while the return to school may pose some challenges, she agreed with her colleagues that the return may offer much-needed stability, structure and predictability.

“Teachers and staff are trained for situations like this, and all of our children will be in good hands,” said Smosna.

“But there are many unknowns that we all have to keep in mind. Parents should be aware that your child will be entering an environment where everyone is at a different level of coping with crisis. That fact alone can cause new or worse issues in how children deal with the ongoing aftershocks or discussions about earthquakes.

“So be vigilant, and communicate with your child’s teacher.”

As a 14-year special ed teacher, she urged parents to communicate every detail they can think of on how the earthquakes have affected their children. “Parents are the experts on their children.”

Her final advice?

“Count blessings! Even families that have lost a great deal in this event have impressed me with their ability to still tally up the ‘good’ that was woven throughout our ordeal. Help your child see those positives and work hard to create more. Let this event bring about more family time, a greater appreciation for our community — whatever you can glean from this that will bring peace and healing.”

And if you need help? Ask for it. “If your children see you getting help, they will know they can ask for it as well.”

Story First Published: 2019-08-02