As the tsunami hit her school in Sendai, kindergarten teacher Junko Kamada stood in the window of a second story hall to block the children from seeing the destruction caused by the 1.5-meter wave.
Amid dirt-caked chairs, soiled books and damaged equipment, Kamada, 60, is preparing to bring the students back to the school, about a mile inland from the coast. The children will also need counseling to deal with the trauma they have experienced, psychologists say.
Schools resumed two days ago in northeastern Japan, the epicenter of the March 11 magnitude-9 earthquake. Classes --some held in homes and makeshift spaces -- are providing a safe place for children to reunite with friends and a semblance of familiarity amid the nation’s worst disaster since World War II.
While adolescents attuned to the reality of death may act out their trauma, younger ones find it harder to articulate their distress, she said.
People who suffer psychological ailments such as depression in childhood are 10 to 20 times more likely than others to experience those problems in adulthood, according to a 2010 study in the journal Social Science & Medicine. Affected individuals tend to leave school earlier and earn about 20 percent less over their lifetime, the authors found.
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“When children suffer from an acute fear, they tend to depend on their mothers more for their safety, and display regressive and immature behavior,” said Naotaka Shinfuku, professor of psychiatry at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka, who studied the impact of the 1995 earthquake in the Japanese city of Kobe. “It’s good for children’s mental health to learn and play in a safe environment if they wish to do so.”
“Kids saw their friends for the first time in days,” Saijo, 53, said. “They were very happy, hugging each other -- something we hadn’t seen in a while.”
At the Sakuragi Hanazono kindergarten, where Junko Kamada began her teaching career almost 40 years ago, that means not succumbing to grief.
“The teachers are incredibly sad,” Kamada said. “They know children they have cared for have died, but they are trying to get the school back on its feet.”
Ms. McBride, who recently returned from three weeks in Haiti, said the children she spoke with who had moved from school tents into semi-permanent structures seemed “really happy to be back at school”.
“One interesting thing about this,” Mr. Vasquez added, “is the fact that, believe it or not, children were afraid of going back to schools that were made out of bricks or reinforced concrete because they associate collapse with a certain type of construction.”