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President's Message: A Family Story

By Rhonda J. Armistead, NCSP

Imagine living with your children for more than two years in a thirty foot long FEMA trailer intended for temporary housing. This is the situation for approximately 25,000 to 30,000 children displaced from their homes after hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Because NASP will host its national convention in New Orleans next February, I find myself very interested in the local conditions of schools and families. The news coming from the area is not encouraging. Recent surveys of mental health problems among students from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast suggest that 50 to 65% of children ages 9 to 18 may be experiencing behavioral and emotional problems. Two years after Katrina, the number of children who are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression is about the same as it was one year ago. There has been little improvement in their emotional wellness.

Trauma experts say that given the catastrophic nature of the hurricane, it is not surprising that so many children are still experiencing such negative outcomes. Trauma severity relates to the extent of loss and Katrina caused incredible losses. Children lost their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, their friends, their churches, and often their extended families. We know, of course, that returning to normal plays an important role in any recovery process, yet normalcy has not yet returned to many children in New Orleans. I've read that children in those areas with less property damage seem to doing better than those in areas where houses sit empty and rebuilding is not in sight. One New Orleans mother in such an area said in a recent National Public Radio story, "I miss my people."

Drs. Howard and Joy Osofsky, leading mental health experts in the New Orleans area and professors of pediatrics and psychiatry at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, have provided mental health services to thousands of children and families through the Louisiana Spirit Crisis Counseling program. They've reached two conclusions as a result of their work with children and families who survived Katrina: (1) schools provide a foundation of stability for children after disasters and (2) children are far more resilient if they have good support from their families. It is ironic that a major disaster illuminated the obvious reality that so many of us see on a daily basis: that schools are normal places for kids, and parents are important to the resilience of their own children.

In fact, schools and families are where children learn resilience. Learning to cope with adverse conditions is a developmental process that occurs within contexts. Researchers have shown that a combination of protective factors interact with contexts to produce—over time—success for children. Robert Pianta at the University of Virginia explained it this way: "Risk and resilience are not a characteristic of a child or a family or a school, but are characteristics of a process involving the interactions of systems.... The more interactions and the more these interactions are child-centered, the better the developmental outcomes associated with this process."

Every child who survived Katrina has a story—a family story. In working with their parents, most school psychologist would see the importance of talking with them about what it is like for children to lose so much, to be displaced, and perhaps even traumatized. But then, every child we interact with as school psychologists has a family context—a family story. In schools, we speak often about home–school partnerships, but I believe there is so much more that we can do in developing relationships with parents to benefit the wellness of their children. If you don't already communicate with the parents of every child on your caseload, I challenge you to improve your practice in this area. Be the person who calls the parent. Be the person who helps a parent understand how they can protect their child from greater risks and build resilience in the face of risk or adversity. Working within the family system should be our responsibility for the students we serve in each of our respective communities.

For the families and schools in New Orleans, NASP plans to offer a token of our hope that life will return to normal for them soon. The NASP Children's Fund is providing substantial financial support so we can build a children's playground for either a school or neighborhood during our convention week in New Orleans. Parents and teachers from the community and school psychologists from our convention will work together on Saturday, February 9th to build a place for children to play and be normal again.