Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty had just finished writing up research from a study into the impact health issues had on primary schoolchildren when the first Canterbury earthquake struck in September 2010.
But it wasn’t until 2012, when speaking to a colleague, that she had her ‘light-bulb’ moment.
“A colleague mentioned that the five-year-olds starting school were quite different,” Liberty recalls.
“A couple of hours later I realised that because we had conducted this coal heart study, starting in 2005, of children entering school in 2006 and 2007, we had a built-in baseline comparison to study what was happening to children who entered schools after the earthquake.”
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For those outside the Canterbury community, the aftermath of the earthquakes is no longer glaringly obvious – unsettled insurance claims rarely get media attention these days and much of the rubble in the Christchurch city centre has been replaced with shiny new buildings.
But for the parents and teachers of the children affected by the quakes, the impact has been startling.
Between the initial earthquake in September 2010 and mid-2012, about 14,000 earthquakes shook the region.
Unlike adults, who have years of experience processing fear, Liberty says the children in the study, whose average age was two at the time of the first earthquake, weren’t equipped to deal with the trauma. “Most hadn’t even learned to talk. They have no way of coping. Hundreds of times their body is disrupted by this flood of hormones,” explains Liberty.
The impact of the quakes became apparent as children began entering school. Initial findings from Liberty’s post-earthquake study found that, compared to the baseline study, children who entered school after the earthquakes were four to five times more likely to present with learning or behavioural issues.
An Oregon native who arrived in Christchurch 29 years ago and calls New Zealand home, Liberty says she was compelled to use her skills and experience to help her community after disaster struck.
The University of Canterbury pilot study that she has spearheaded is a world-first – no other study in the world has been able to baseline the mental health of such young children in the community and there is no longitudinal study of children affected by earthquakes like the one being conducted now, explains Liberty.
But Liberty and her research team are doing more than collecting data.
“In 2015 we realised that some of these kids were getting worse over time so we implemented a project to trial strategies to reduce their symptoms and improve their overall health and wellbeing,” Liberty says.
One of the first things they helped schools implement was ‘Play-Eat-Learn’. “We’ve changed the school day,” Liberty explains.
“Research shows that if you can give children a school day that is more aligned with their circadian rhythm and what their body should be doing, this can help them become calmer.”
Changing classroom décor has also been important, as Liberty explains: “88 per cent of our children experienced falling objects during the earthquakes and we found that a number of children were distracted by hanging decorations and it was likely that if anything like that moved it triggered flashbacks of items falling.”
Liberty says while the changes might sound simple, they’re not without challenges.
“Changing the school schedule, changing the way schools look, changing the food parents send for lunches … these things take a lot of effort to put in place,” she says.
But it has been worth it. In the first year, they noticed significant reductions in behavioural and learning difficulties. “Around 60 per cent of the children improved as a result of the strategies put in place by the schools on our recommendations.”
Liberty says it’s often difficult to help people understand that the children affected by the earthquakes aren’t inherently naughty.
“If a kid is throwing a tantrum, you might be judgmental about how they have been parented. But we now know that these children can’t control their bodily reactions to stressful events,” she says.
Sadly, says Liberty, a lot of parents have blamed themselves for problems their children are having.
“Parents write to us saying I’m sure he’s having all these problems now because we spent three weeks sleeping under the table or because we were crying all the time. Parents did not cause these problems.
The young children’s behaviour gets changed by these repeated earthquakes activating their fear centres.”
Fighting the myth that children are born resilient is equally important. “There’s a big misconception that children are resilient,” Liberty says.
“But resilience is in a community, it’s a way of supporting people by understanding what’s happening.”
She believes now is the time for Christchurch to rally together to build a more caring community.
“We can’t just keep saying people have to go and get help. Obviously they do, but we can help by being warm and inclusive.
Saying ‘hello’ to a teenager who’s got their head down, or making faces at a child to cheer them up, it doesn’t take any time to do those things. We have to be positive and supportive.”