The impact of bushfires on student wellbeing and student learning
This report was originally published 20 August 2020.
“ 2019/20 was the most devastating bush fire season in NSW history, truly unparalleled in more ways than one. Over the course of the season, fires spread south from the Queensland border to the Victorian border, leaving huge numbers of people displaced.”
(NSW Rural Fire Service 2020 p. 2).
The 2019-2020 bushfires exposed many NSW students and school communities to potential trauma. When bushfires threaten homes and communities they threaten people’s physical and emotional safety and expose them to high levels of uncertainty and stress. It is normal for children and young people to be overwhelmed and experience strong physical and emotional reactions after experiencing bushfires. There is no one ‘standard’ pattern of reactions, and it is important to recognise that children and young people have different needs to those of adults and differ in how they understand, express and recover from trauma and distress.
Children and young people face additional challenges when bushfires interrupt their education. The fires may impede their physical access to school, destroy school facilities, or cause teachers to be unavailable as they deal with the crisis. Some students experience further academic and social disruption from relocating to another school in a new area. When they do return to school, students may still be experiencing stress and trauma reactions that affect their concentration and memory, potentially contributing to long-term impairments in their academic performance (Gibbs et al. 2019).
The literature highlights the central role of community support. Children and young people are members of families, peer groups, schools and other social and cultural communities that interact to either buffer or exacerbate a disaster’s impact (Peek et al. 2018). In the context of Australian bushfires, it is clear from the research and communication from principals and school leaders in bushfire-affected areas that schools play a key role in supporting their communities throughout bushfire preparation, planning, relief and recovery.
Following are key findings from this paper in relation to the potential impact of bushfires on student wellbeing and student learning.
In relation to student wellbeing:
- Trauma is a personal experience unique to each individual. Understanding students’ normal responses to bushfire events in the immediate aftermath and following months can help schools to support students in their recovery and recognise when they might need to seek extra help.
- While the majority of children and young people who experience disaster- related distress return to their normal state of wellbeing over time, a substantial minority experience more intense and persistent reactions.
- Some students are more vulnerable than others to developing problems following bushfire events. Risk factors include:
- pre-bushfire experiences and context (for example, having prior traumatic experiences, or fewer financial or social resources, a pre-existing illness or disability, or limited family support)
- exposure to, and interpretation of the event (for example, the extent to which students witnessed terrifying events, suffered losses, or feared for their own or a loved one’s safety)
- post-bushfire physical, social and emotional disruption (for example, relocation, family conflict or violence, separation from social networks, an undermined sense of self, or safety and security issues).
- Families affected by bushfires may be reluctant to seek professional mental health support and often have no experience in seeking or accepting help from agencies, according to fieldworkers experienced in disaster relief. It is important to take a coordinated approach to mental health service provision that is tailored to the local community context and needs.
- Schools can play an important role in supporting students’ wellbeing after bushfires by restoring hope and predictable routines in a safe and stable environment.
In relation to student learning and assessment:
- Natural disasters such as bushfires can have immediate, short-term and long- term impacts on student learning. Further research is needed on the long-term impacts of bushfire events.
- The degree of disruption to student learning can be influenced by the degree to which schools have been affected by fire, although this is not always the case.
- The interaction between environmental stressors such as bushfires and high stakes examinations such as the HSC may exacerbate underlying stress for students who are already vulnerable.
- Communication with students and their parents during bushfire events is a key priority for principals, especially in relation to the HSC.
- Schools have a critical role in preparing children and young people to face natural disasters.
- The vulnerability of students is reduced through information provided via disaster education programs.