Though he was living 2,000 miles from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, school psychologist Steven Little, PhD, a former resident, deeply felt the storm's devastation.
"Seeing all that destruction on TV and all the people who were evacuating--I knew I had to do something," says Little, a visiting professor at the University of California, Riverside. "I lived there for 15 years."
So, Little and his wife, psychologist Angeleque Akin-Little, PhD, dropped off their dogs at a neighbor's house, packed their bags and headed to Baton Rouge, La. There, they volunteered with the Red Cross, which sent them to shelters. But when they had a free moment, the first thing the Littles did was head for Concordia Parish schools. The schools had absorbed around 500 evacuees, and the Littles wanted to do what they could to help ease the transition for both students and administrators. During their two weeks there, the Littles helped five schools begin to develop services for their new students. Working with administrators and school counselors, they ran group therapy sessions and aimed to identify the students who seemed particularly troubled.
"We listened to children tell us about their experiences and let them know there were people they could talk to if they wanted to talk in the future," says Little.
This summer the Littles will move to Mississippi, in part so they can continue their work with Katrina-affected children. They recently applied for a grant from the Society for the Study of School Psychology that would allow them to go back to Concordia Parish to assist with in-school mental health programs and study what factors helped children bounce back after the storm.
Louisiana schools are badly in need of psychologists to run academic and mental health evaluations and interventions, says Constance Patterson, PhD, a school psychology professor at Louisiana State University. What's more, the reconstruction of the entire New Orleans public school system gives psychologists the opportunity to break out of traditional roles and help with everything from planning academic curricula to developing programs that encourage mental health--instead of just intervening after problems have developed, she says. "It's an exciting time for psychologists to be involved in these schools," Patterson says. "We can support teacher colleagues and students with the challenges of living in this area after the storm, but we can also change the way we provide psychological services."
The Littles are among a number of school psychologists stepping up to the challenge. While some like the Littles are providing school-based services to families who resettle to the north of New Orleans, others in the city are welcoming returning children with courses designed to help them handle their evacuation memories and emotions.
Identifying troubled students
Psychology doctoral student Tara Mathews was one of those who went to help when 17 public schools and a handful of private ones reopened in New Orleans in January. Mathews, in her second year at Tulane University, evaluated the mental and emotional state of students who teachers identified as potentially in need of help during the first week of classes at two schools.
"Some kids were not here whenthe hurricane hit, but had terrifying experiences: having to go stay with relatives, not seeing their parents, not even knowing if they'd ever see their parents again," Mathews says.
Most students got through the storm without developing post-traumatic stress symptoms, says Mathews. Some, however, do have trauma-related symptoms, such as being terrified by rainstorms. For these children, the graduate students are running individual and group cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions. A typical activity, says Mathews, is exposure therapy, which includes practicing relaxation techniques while imagining scary experiences, such as thunderstorms.
Even those children who don't show signs of post-traumatic stress need the opportunity to think through their experiences, says Stacy Overstreet, PhD, director of Tulane's school psychology program.
"If you look at the trauma literature, there are two key elements to recovery: social support and putting experiences into context," says Overstreet. "It is important to give kids the opportunity to create some order out of all their chaotic memories."
To this end, Overstreet worked with Bonnie Nastasi, PhD--a Walden University psychology professor and mental-health curricula expert--and school counselors to create a program for all returning students at the two schools. The weekly, hour-long classes aimed to prevent mental-health problems among the students, and they have the added benefit of giving psychologists an opportunity to broaden their role in the schools, Overstreet says.
Voices for victims
Mathews and her fellow students are among those taking advantage of that opportunity. In addition to their usual work, they ran the post-Katrina healing curricula at St. Peter Claver, a private elementary and middle school in New Orleans.
For 12 weeks, Mathews spent Monday afternoons with 35 seventh- and eighth-graders. She led them in activities to help them think through their evacuation experiences. For example, one day they took long pieces of paper and made timelines, noting where they went after they fled the city and drawing pictures of who was with them. On another day, they made up rap songs or poems about the way New Orleans has changed. Matthews and her colleagues let students work at their own pace and the teachers watched for signs of post-traumatic stress among the students--which happened on occasion. But for the most part, the children seemed to benefit from the curriculum, she says. "They really like doing artistic activities and being creative about expressing themselves," says Mathews.
Instructors also helped the students master an emotional vocabulary. In one class activity, they brainstormed feeling words and then categorized and ranked them by intensity. This kind of work gives students the ability to talk about their emotions, and it can encourage them to ask for help if they start to feel overwhelmed, says Overstreet.
Angeleque Akin-Little also plans to give children the opportunity to share their experiences. She and her husband will videotape children's stories of survival in the schools they worked in immediately after the hurricane. The two will then content-code the videotapes and glean what factors made the experience more bearable for the children, says Akin-Little.
"This is an opportunity to help current and future children of disasters," she says.
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