After the Storm

After the Storm

A year and a half after Superstorm Sandy, recovery continues to challenge New Jersey. Montclair State’s Gerard Costa and his team from the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health received a $720,000, two-year grant from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to provide training for those who help the state’s youngest residents cope with the disaster.

In New Jersey alone, where 34 people died in the storm, the financial toll from Sandy was estimated at $37 billion but, while great, the emotional cost is harder to measure. Despite the state’s strong disaster response network, most responders have little background in addressing the needs of very young children in the wake of natural disasters, according to Costa.

Costa’s team mobilized immediately to “help the helpers” with an initial informational email outreach, followed by a meeting to educate those in the state who work with families to address the needs of infants, toddlers and children directly affected by the storm.

They brought together those stakeholders to “inform them about the developmental, emotional, neurological and social consequences of traumatic events and provided them with guidelines and strategies to help,” Costa says.

After surviving a natural disaster, infants and young children may experience difficulties sleeping or eating, regress developmentally and be alternatively clingy or rejecting of touch, demanding or disinterested. During times of extreme stress, parents have difficulty reading young children’s cues, which compromises the child’s feelings of safety, diminishes trust in parents to protect and increases the risk of social or behavioral difficulties.

The Department of Children and Families grant, which provides funding through 2015, will support continued training in all 10 counties most affected by the storm, including workshops to provide staff with the understanding of how disaster impacts infants and children, along with strategies to help (including ways to respond to trauma and to help families engage in reflective practices and self care).

The Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health also will provide parent workshops and workshops for community and faith-based organizations that wish to learn about the special needs of infants and children during this critical time.

“We hope to raise the bar and the ‘floor’ of knowledge regarding the power of the earliest relationships and experiences in forming the infant brain and mind,” Costa says.

“As a result, we expect that staff from a variety of backgrounds and roles — from infant and child care workers to child protective service caseworkers to home visitors and early intervention staff — will better understand that the ‘behavior’ they see is related to prior relationships and brain systems that were ‘co-constructed’ by the earliest experiences. This, in turn, will lead to changes in care and educational practices and better outcomes in infants and children.”