Rice gives early ed teachers tools to address Harvey trauma

A special conference July 23-25 at Rice University brought together teachers and administrators from across Greater Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast whose classrooms, schools, homes or personal lives were impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Houston-area early education teachers participated in a painting exercise as part of the Glasscock School’s “Caring for Children, Caring for Ourselves” conference. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The conference, “Caring for Children, Caring for Ourselves,” was hosted by the School Literacy and Culture program at Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies and Save the Children, a global humanitarian organization. The conference was designed for teachers working with children ranging from 3-year-olds to first-graders and was taught by staff from both organizations.

Conference workshops held in Fondren Library’s Kyle Morrow Room prepared teachers heading back to students with lingering anxiety and other emotions from Harvey.

“As early childhood educators, we know that children look to us as helpers and desperately need opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about Hurricane Harvey and other traumatic events,” said School Literacy and Culture Director Karen Capo. “To do this, we must first attend to our own well-being. This conference supported the emotional needs of early childhood professionals while also providing specific ideas for supporting the young children in our care.”

One strategy Capo introduced was a different kind of play center. At a traditional play center, toddlers and young children often find blocks, some dolls and maybe a miniature kitchen. “You wouldn’t normally see things like sponges or rubber gloves or hammers, things that represented rebuilding,” Capo said. But if children see those kinds of props, they may evoke memories and stories of Harvey, Capo explained. Then children as young as 3 years old can tell their own stories on their own terms — instead of being prodded with questions that might be too direct.

Another strategy is to use books that deal with themes of rain, coming together and healing.

An ongoing effort

The School Literacy and Culture program has made outreach to Houston’s education community a priority in the aftermath of Harvey.

In October, a month and a half after the storm struck Houston and led to extended school closures, Capo and colleagues hosted more than 175 Houston-area early childhood educators at the Glasscock School for a summit, “Look for the Helpers, Listen for the Stories.” Participants took home a tote full of resources and classroom materials that encouraged teachers and children to discover the power of story and play to heal.

The president and CEO of Save the Children, Carolyn Miles, is a member of the advisory board at Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders. Miles visited the university in February to discuss global child health challenges, a presentation Capo attended and which led to the collaboration between School Literacy and Culture and Save the Children.

“We not only  support children and families directly, but we also support their support systems,” said Anna Hardway, Save the Children’s deputy director in Texas, who worked with Capo in organizing the July conference. “Very often teachers … are called the ‘second responders.’ They deal with what happens after the disaster when children begin to process and they’re coming back to the classroom. They (teachers) have a different kind of emergency in the classroom. Often children don’t begin to process until six months to 18 months after a disaster happens.”

In 2007, in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Save the Children developed a child-informed program called Journey of Hope that draws on children’s strengths to support their resilience in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. Today, the program offers five grade- and age-specific curricula designed to build resiliency among children, youth and their caregivers while helping them understand their feelings.

Nanette Musters, a first-grade teacher at Houston Independent School District’s Mark Twain Elementary School, attended the July conference. “I am so grateful to everyone who provided this amazing experience,” she said. “I had no idea of the depth of the trauma I was going through. The strategies presented will change my personal life as well as my teaching life.”

Rice and Save the Children plan to hold another conference Sept. 29 for early education teachers who were personally affected by Harvey or whose students were impacted. For more information about School Literacy and Culture’s programs and conferences, go to http://glasscock.rice.edu/departments/school-literacy-culture.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.