A University of Canterbury child health researcher is studying the impact of the earthquakes and their aftermath on some of Christchurch’s smallest and most vulnerable residents.

Afternoons were the worst. That was typically when the outbursts of crying, hitting or other violence would erupt in Christchurch classrooms and playgrounds. Not from every pupil, nor in every classroom or school. But the noticeable increase in behavioural problems and volatility following the Canterbury earthquakes was enough to really worry educators.

University of Canterbury child health researcher Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty first heard about these problems in late 2011, from her friend and colleague Maureen Allan. Allan is the manager of support services for children with learning and behavioural problems in schools on the east side of Christchurch. They were experiencing a big spike in referrals from schools needing help for troubled children. Teachers were also expressing concern over new entrants struggling to learn and without many of the skills that children of that age would normally have.

It set Liberty to thinking. What was the cause of these issues in new entrants who would have been pre-schoolers during the biggest quakes, and subsequent aftershocks? They could not explain what was happening to them, and possibly couldn’t remember their lives before the earthquakes.

A few years before the earthquakes, Liberty had done a study of new entrants’ mental health and behavioural problems with some University of Otago paediatric researchers. She had the perfect group to compare the situation of post-quake new entrants with.

Starting at the end of 2012, Liberty and Allan invited schools to be part of the new study. They wanted to see if children starting school after experiencing earthquakes and aftershocks were different from those surveyed before. It was a big ask, as schools and their communities were dealing with the earthquakes’ aftermath. Five schools agreed, and their students were assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and behavioural problems.

Liberty says the results were shocking. “We saw significant differences in the children’s behaviour and learning compared to new entrants who had not experienced the earthquakes, or the very disruptive post-earthquake environment. These children’s brains have become neurologically different because of the quakes and aftershocks.”

Seventy per cent of the post-quake children had at least one symptom of PTSD. One in five exhibited all classic symptoms of PTSD. This incidence of significant levels of PTSD was double the rate of the children surveyed before the quakes. “More than 70 per cent of children had sleep problems, headaches, stomach aches, eating problems, nightmares, wetting the bed. The list goes on. The children also had hyperarousal, anger outbursts, crying for seemingly no reason and irritability.”

Liberty acknowledges her study was small – involving about 600 children from the east and south of Christchurch – but concerning nonetheless.

To understand what was causing these problems, Liberty spent six months studying international research on children’s brain development, and children and disasters. She found evidence that exposure to prolonged stress can disrupt the development of the brain and neurological systems of young children.

“There were 17 months of high intensity earthquakes, in which there were thousands of earthquakes, many of which were magnitude 5 or greater. So these children’s bodies are registering the quakes. They can’t relate or tell you what’s happening – but it’s definitely affecting them. These children’s brains have become neurologically different because of the quakes and aftershocks.”

Along with clues about the cause of  a rise in problems in new entrants, Liberty scoured the literature for ways to help. Because there were so many children exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, she decided on a school-wide programme. It would focus on calming the environment to reduce stressors that could trigger children. The rationale: if the environment is calmer, everyone can learn better.

The comprehensive programme

  • Explaining to teachers and parents how children’s behaviour changes under stress, and how to respond to stressed children.
  • Calming the classroom environment by reducing visual over-stimulation, and adjusting levels of light, heat and noise.
  • Changing the routine of the day to ‘Play, Eat, Learn’, allowing a calmer food consumption experience.
  • Encouraging children to eat a complex carbohydrate snack at a time when they need energy to maintain concentration.
  • Offering a daily dose of Omega 3, which may soothe aggravated nerve pathways and improve sleep.
  • Encouraging children to drink more water and explaining how it improves learning and how bodies and brains under stress need more. All strategies were identified from extensive literature reviews, have an evidence base, and are effective in addressing the biological and neurobiological effects of stress. A detailed description of the strategies may be downloaded from this link: https://archive.org/details/ReducingStressInSchools2017.

The five schools involved started the programme in 2016, doing as many aspects as they could. There was no cost to schools or families. Organisations such as the Rātā Foundation and the Canterbury Primary Principals Association funded the Omega 3 and drink bottles.

At the end of 2016, one year after  the introduction of the strategies, the impact of the programme was measured. In schools that implemented the majority of strategies, the proportion of children with high levels of behavioural problems decreased by a third. A third of the other children also showed improved behaviour. On average, behavioural issues reduced by two problems per child.

In mid-2017, Liberty presented her preliminary results to the Canterbury Primary Principals Association, which decided to invest in extending the programme.

The schools involved in the original research are also now trialling programmes to improve children’s sleep and coping skills.

Nine primary schools, 12 kindergartens and six preschools –with a total of 4000 students—are now implementing varying aspects of the programme in a replication study. At the end of the year, Liberty and her colleagues will have a good idea of the impact of different aspects of the programme, and whether it is worthwhile for schools to implement just part of it.

“My hope is that we can make a positive impact on the children who were vulnerable to the effects of the earthquakes, and ensure they have healthy and bright futures.”