Social theory hypothesizes bullying and peer victimization increase during periods of transitions as youth try to establish and maintain dominance within the changing peer group. One of the peak transitions in a youth’s life is the transition from elementary school grades to middle school; usually sixth grade for most school systems; thus school bullying is at its peak during this transition period. When youth are relocated after a natural catastrophe such as the hurricane Katrina disaster; attending a new school is similar to this transition. There is often an increase in deviant and aggressive behavior in schools where there has been an influx of relocated students.
PTSD Symptoms in Youth
The characteristics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children are similar to those in adults. PTSD characteristics include:
- Disorganized or agitated behavior
- Repetitive play that express themes or aspects of the trauma
- Nightmares of the trauma
- Flashbacks or enactment of specific details of the trauma
- Avoidance of reminders of the trauma
- Emotional reactivity such as anger or irritation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty regulating impulses
It has been hypothesized PTSD indicators can predict bullying behavior and will increase victimization in youth. In 2009, Terranova, Boxer, and Morris conducted a study six weeks after the hurricane Katrina disaster to determine if relocated youth displayed behaviors supporting this hypothesis.
Psychological Consequences of a Natural Disaster
In their study Terranova, Boxer, and Morris, (2009) found youth who were relocated to schools after the hurricane Katrina disaster, were less likely to effectively respond to peer conflict and had an increase in the likelihood of rejection and victimization. Their results showed an increase in the levels of school bullying at those schools with a high influx of relocated students. The results of the study did not support PTSD symptoms predicted changes in school bullying behaviors. It did support school bullying was an avenue in which aggressive behaviors were manifested.
School bullying is generally considered emotionally cold and calculated behavior; but, that isn’t necessarily always the case. After a disaster, youth can experience irritability and difficulties with impulse control that are characteristic of PTSD symptoms. In turn, youth who are already pre-disposed to such behaviors direct their unregulated behaviors to those who can’t defend themselves. When this happens, school bullying can be more hostile and unprovoked. Left unchecked, youth can become more unpredictable and act out in more inappropriate and externalized behaviors.
What Schools can do to Reduce School Bullying After a Disaster
Considering the information provided from the Terranova, Boxer, and Morris study, schools developing an emergency disaster plan need to implement several methods of dealing with the possible influCredit: photographer: Robert Kaufmannx of relocated youth. Several recommendations include provision of activities related to the disaster such as coloring books, poem or story readings, and contests such as creating posters. In-class activities that may be helpful include pro-social activities such as group projects or using a “buddy” approach by assigning a relocated student with an established student.
Many schools provide mental health services to students. Counseling is another piece of a well-developed emergency plan. Individual and group sessions may be beneficial for relocated students to help them cope with the transitions thrust upon them by the disaster.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Terranova, Andrew M., Boxer, Paul, & Morris, Amanda Sheffield. (2009) Changes in children’s peer interactions following a natural disaster: How predisaster bullying and victimization rates changed following hurricane Katrina. Psychology in the Schools 46 (4): 333-347.
The copyright of the article “Correlation of Hurricane Katrina and School Bullying” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.