Should teachers focus on natural weather-related disasters or try to steer clear of those topics? What about kids who already obsess about thunderstorms or tornadoes? Since weather and climate are taught from elementary school on, there’s no avoiding some discussion of extreme weather. In fact, many fears can be allayed by effective units on this topic. Tornado and earthquake drills are also a routine part of the school year. What school library doesn’t include some of the popular “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshish or other nonfiction accounts of disasters? As hurricane Hermine rakes along the southeastern US right now, with schools canceling classes, I think it would be scarier for kids if adults avoided the topic altogether.
Having taught students who suffered from weather-related fears, here are some strategies I’ve found effective in helping kids manage both extreme weather and safety drills:
- Work with parents to coordinate a consistent approach for dealing with fears about storms, etc. Enlist the help of your school counselor.
- Occasionally, students with serious weather phobias might need to work out of the class during weather-related discussions. Again, this is something to be determined with the parents and mental health professionals.
- Set limits on how much time can be devoted to weather discussions, especially during unstructured periods such as recess and lunch.
- Use social stories for kids with strategies for managing scary thoughts, especially those on the autism spectrum.
- Provide information and guide discussions using a matter-of-fact tone and limiting exposure to videos of disasters.
- Emphasize effective precautions and scientific analysis of severe weather.
- Provide distractions (books, stuffed animal, social story) during lengthy weather-related drills or warnings.
Many kids (and adults) are fascinated with extreme weather and natural disasters. Take advantage of those interests by allowing students to engage in projects and writing on those topics. There are many online STEM resources available to support classroom teachers.
Bottom line: Know your students. If you have a group of potential storm chasers, expect questions and interest in wild weather. If you have just one student who is terrified of severe weather, you might need to save those extreme weather discussions for times when the anxious student is out of the classroom.