In-utero anxiety from Christchurch earthquakes showing up at school
Children born after the Christchurch earthquakes are starting school with quake-related stress, including wetting themselves two or three times a day, a group of principals say.
The principals from eight schools told the Papanui-Innes Community Board last week they were very concerned they were not getting enough support to help children with stress-related behavioural problems.
University of Canterbury researchers say their study of children at eight schools confirms in-utero anxiety is playing out years later in children who were not born at the time of the earthquakes.
Mairehau Primary School principal John Bangma said there were many more new entrants who were anxious and not equipped with the basic skills needed to start school.
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"We have got children who are six years old and are wetting themselves two or three times a day. We've got children who are hyper-vigilant, don't like noise or movement . . . who don't know how to share or take turns . . . [and] who won't let mum or dad go home."
New entrant classes had returned to a more play-based style of learning, like pre-school, to accommodate for the drop in school readiness, he said.
"In the past it would be expected that when you turn five, you come to school and you know how to sit on the mat and listen to the teacher – we don't do that any more because the children can't do it."
The principals' group said they did not feel the Ministry of Education understood the ongoing effects of the earthquakes on children and families, and more support was needed urgently.
University of Canterbury Associate Professor Kathleen Liberty said 300 children born between 2008 and 2011 were being assessed for behavioural changes and compared to a group from an earlier study completed before the earthquakes.
There was lots of biological evidence that stressful environments could affect pre-natal development and development after birth, she said.
"We are finding in our research it really doesn't matter what kind of parenting the children have had, these are biological impacts that can affect the child directly while they are in utero or after they are born."
Teachers involved in the study reported children were having angry outbursts, "melt-downs", and unexplained crying.
"We have a lot of children in our studies that have sleep disturbances, so nightmares and wetting the bed, so that means the family is affected by parents losing sleep," Liberty said.
Developmental delay or regression was also evident, with some children unprepared for starting school.
The findings were "very typical" of post disaster communities, but the succession of earthquakes and aftershocks Canterbury had experienced meant there would be a larger effect compared to some other disasters.
"Our rate of injury and death was higher than Hurricane Katrina so it's no surprise we are seeing persistent effects long afterwards," Liberty said.
One Christchurch mother, who did not want to be named, said her 10-year-old daughter had suffered anxiety as a result of the earthquakes.
She and the girl's father separated due to quake stress and their family home had still not been repaired.
Her daughter's general anxiety and fear of earthquakes was increasing as she got older, causing sore stomachs, moodiness and difficulty sleeping.
Her daughter's school had offered a counselling service, made available through a community trust, which had helped, the woman said.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said the ministry had provided an extra $10 million over four years to aid quake recovery, and funding was still available.
Support for teachers dealing with children with behavioural and learning problems was available, and 21 psychologists had been employed.
Schools were also able to spend operational funding to provide additional support for students, Casey said.
Bangma said the ministry support did not offer counselling for students and children referred to Canterbury District Health Board specialist mental health services were waiting an average of six months for help.
"It's not the one-on-one help some of these children need."