CASSE’s inaugural conference a great success
May 24, 2011
Bullying – we are all in this together
September 12, 2011

Creating Safe Places in Response to Disaster – The Christchurch Experience

by Margaret Nixon

When disasters like earthquakes and floods hit, it is the images of children that often appear on our screens. We see images as they struggle with, and attempt to make sense of, their loss of normality and routine. We see children frightened as their sense of safety is challenged and sometimes destroyed. Research tells us that children who have an opportunity to return to a sense of normality, to re-establish a safe and supportive environment, are assisted in their processing and recovery from traumatic events. Murphy and Stewart, in their article about responding to violence in Northern Ireland, drew on the work on Herman in regard to supporting children who have experienced trauma.

In her book Trauma and Recovery Herman proposes three components in trauma recovery, namely safety, remembrance and reconnection.

When an earthquake struck Christchurch for the second time in a year, the challenge to school communities was the re-establishing for the children their sense of safety, remembrance and reconnection. Creating safe and supportive environments where the children experience a sense of normality and begin to unravel their experiences. Waimairi Primary School was one school that faced this challenge.

School principal Mike Anderson from Waimairi School spoke prior to the children returning to school on Life Matters on the ABC radio about how the school community had responded to the earthquake, and I spoke with him after school had returned. Mike discussed the use of technology in supporting and maintaining connectedness with the children after the earthquake, and the approach taken to support both the staff and parent community.

After the earthquake in New Zealand in September 2010 a local philanthropist, in response to the Ministry of Education stating that children needed a forum to be able to post their responses, set up the web site www.whenmyhomeshook. This became a valuable forum for school children to post their reactions after the second earthquake in March 2011. is a website dedicated to helping Canterbury School children overcome the recent earthquake by providing a platform where they can openly share their personal earthquake story. (whenmy homeshook)

Mike used this website as a method of re-establishing a sense of safety and normality for the children. This web site and the school’s web site were accessed by a large percentage of children and became a place for them to record their experiences and responses. It also provided a platform for the principal and leadership to respond while the children were away from school. They were able to reassure the children that the school structure was being repaired, the environment made safe, and that the school was returning to normal. Now that school has returned, students are not encouraged to continue to revisit the stories of what happened in the time of the earthquake, but rather to share how things have changed and moved on. The school not only focused on the children, but also the parents and staff.

Opportunity and support was provided to the parents as part of the healing process. Mike commented that a community working-bee allowed families to be involved in the creating of a safe environment and an opportunity for the children to see the school as a safe place prior to returning. The school held a parent information night that allowed parents to discuss concerns and provided the school with an opportunity to articulate their approach in supporting the students and families as they returned to routine. In the previous year when the first earthquake hit Christchurch the school set up a Risk Register for parents. The register was open to contributions by all members of the school community and alerted the leadership to those families who needed some extra support. This support was in the form of a chat, a cry or referral to professional assistance. Mike made the observation that they have learnt the importance of not placing people into a slot. He noted that it was not only the families who were making a lot of noise who made it on the register, but those who were internalizing the event and remaining quiet. There were some similarities in the support that was provided for the teachers.

The teachers also had a professional development day prior to the return of students. Mike spoke about how normalizing feelings, verbalizing and laughter have been essential elements in supporting the staff. It is apparent that the response of the Waimairi school to the earthquake is informed by the emphasis the school places on acknowledging the impact of the emotional world of the teachers and students in the normal running of the school. There is an understanding that how teachers and children are feeling affects the way we work and learn. From this foundation the school was able to explore personality types in teachers and how they react under pressure. Staff commented how this approach has assisted them in responding to their relationships outside the school. When the children returned to school additional staff were employed to support existing staff. This gave teachers space to respond to their own emotions while ensuring that normality remained for the children. A Risk-Register was also established for the teachers. Each week the senior management team reviews how teachers are tracking prior to moving onto other business. Speaking after school had returned Mike commented on routine as a wonderful healer as the school integrates the events of the past into a new future.

Creating safe and supportive environments for children is valuable when life is running smoothly. However when this routine is interrupted through natural disaster, the mission of re-establishing a safe and supportive environment for the children is vital in assisting them to make sense of what has happened and minimize the impact of the trauma on their future. When a disaster occurs the way we as a community respond to our children will help to contain the lasting impact of the trauma. The response of the Waimairi School and sites such as www.whenmyhomeshook demonstrate how in the midst of disaster children can begin to heal within a safe and supportive environment.

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when my home shook. (n.d.). (A. Hutchinson, Producer) Retrieved M arch 23, 2011, from
ABC. (2011, March 10). (J. Shileds, Producer) Retrieved March 23, 2 011, from LifeMatters:
Dischino, K. (n.d.). The Child-Friendly Spaces Program.
Herman.J.L. (2001). Trauma and Recovery: from domestic abuse to political terror. London: Pandora.
Murphy, M., & Stewart, D. (2006). Responding to communities in trauma in Northern Ireland: supporting the possitive experience of childhood by partnership working. Support for Learning , 21 (2), 70-76.

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Margaret Nixon

Margaret is a researcher with CASSE. She has taught in various education settings, both in Australia and internationally, and has been a leading teacher for Wellbeing and Engagement. Margaret is currently developing a Visual Arts module to enhance emotional literacy and is involved in research within the area of teacher student relationships.