Research projects

Building children's resilience in fire affected communities

Principal researchers

Professor Graham Burrows AO KCSJ1
Professor Bruce Tonge 2
Dr Glenn Melvin3
Ms Megan McQueenie1
Mr Alan Sutherland1

Institution

1 Mental Health Foundation of Australia
2 School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University
3 Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology

Funding

$101,320

Award type

beyondblue Victorian Centre of Excellence

Project completion year

2011

Project brief

This research project was implemented in response to the disastrous Victorian bushfires of 2009. There was a need to develop ways to rapidly disseminate resiliency principles to those who had been affected by the disaster as well as training for professionals in the management of clinical responses to trauma. Children are at great risk and have much to gain from the resiliency training of their adult carers after a disaster. The adults and institutions surrounding those children are, and will, continue to be very important long term supports. It is this group of carers and clinicians that this research is intended to support.

Children up to the age of eight were targeted to meet needs identified by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Target workshop participants included:

  • preschool and daycare staff and primary school teachers
  • family support practitioners (interpreted to allow a wide variation of qualifications)
  • members of the wider community, especially those who played a supportive role during the fires, e.g. community volunteers such as Red Cross, engineers, council administrators, CFA personnel and school administrative support staff.

Method

Several methods were selected to support and develop the children’s wider adult supports from a variety of institutional organisations.

Group A

Planned workshops of six hours for early childhood educators such as teachers and child care workers, counsellors and others who work in professional roles with children on a regular basis.

Group B

Planned workshops of six hours for clinicians and counsellors to better manage young children’s reactions to trauma, followed by four group teleconference consultation and discussion sessions.

Group C

Planned workshops of two hours for broader community members who, by virtue of the roles they played during the emergency phase, acted as support for children or adults.

Group D

Education sessions of one hour for early childhood educators and maternal and child health nurses on the signs of trauma and the indicators of recovery.

Research design

The project entailed a multiple intervention (prevention, early intervention and treatment) research, targeting children through adult professional carers, using a small multidisciplinary team in a rural setting. Components are evaluated using customised pre- and post-intervention questionnaires.

Outcome measures

Customised questionnaires were developed by the project team to assess the knowledge, attitudes and practices of study participants before and after their attendance at the workshops.

In order to best service the needs of the initially identified community, project services were conducted in surrounding townships to access the carers, clinicians and counsellors who support those children.

Key findings

A total of 104 carers and professionals attended one of four training courses offered at Kinglake, Flowerdale, Yea, Alexandra, Wallan, Epping, Healesville, St Andrews and Whittlesea. These professionals were trained in the principles for recovery and resilience designed for their circumstances. Two purpose-specific manuals were developed. Many teacher participants appeared to value the forum to explore their own reactions to the fires and their subsequent need for resilience advice.

Group A achieved significant gains in knowledge, attitudes and confidence with large or moderate effect size for the difference between pre- and post-questionnaires. The level of knowledge was found to be maintained six months later.

Since the workshop, 80 per cent of respondents (n= 25) reported an increased interest in resilience and had changed their behaviours to utilise resiliency practices in their work. This is a good example of the Stages of Change Model operating to increase a change in behaviours in line with the new information gained.

Clinicians (Group B) endorsed large changes in self-rated ability to work with traumatised children and gained confidence in assessing a traumatised child. Community members (Group C) showed a weaker response, although all findings were significant. The gains made from the workshop were maintained after six months. The ECE (Group D) sample size is small and showed no significant increase in knowledge.

Implications

Study findings indicate that carers and clinicians benefit from attending comprehensive training packages. While trainings were planned for different professional groups and content differed between trainings, the greatest benefit was observed following six hours of training; lesser benefit following two hours and non-significant improvement was observed following a single one hour session offered to early childhood educators. Improvement in knowledge, confidence and attitudes were observed across professions, suggesting the broad benefit of training. The positive educational outcomes of the training suggest that they should be considered by policymakers as an efficacious educational strategy in the event of future natural disasters. Provision of time for professionals to be released from regular duties was also an important factor in scheduling training.

The surprising finding – that many pre-school and primary school teachers had not had an opportunity to talk about their own experiences with their peers – points to a need to provide resources to help with establishing support groups for teachers. Teachers carry a huge burden following a disaster, even more so in rural communities. They have to hold the needs of the children, the children’s families, their colleagues and their own families. Teachers should become the major focus of concern during post-disaster planning as they have a unique connection with the young child.

Resources and/or training arising from the project

Two manuals have been produced that include the theoretical basis that underlies the one-day workshop. One manual, Building Children's Resilience in Fire Affected Communities, was produced for the teachers, counsellors and early childcare groups. The other was a clinician manual for the clinician training, Managing Trauma Responses in Young Children. Both of these training programs can be repeated whenever a need arises.

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