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Disasters will be overcome

Reva Klein meets a psychologist who shows teachers how to help children cope with the aftermath of tragedy. The 60-year-old woman with long dark hair takes out some photographs of her five grandchildren and her lush garden. Israeli born and bred, her English is impeccable, and her manner calm.

To look at her, you wouldn't imagine that much of Ofra Ayalon's life is spent travelling to war zones and other scenes of disaster; places such as the former Yugoslavia, conflict-torn parts of Africa, and the northern border of her own country.

Dr Ayalon is a psychologist at the University of Haifa and an international expert on stress intervention. Her job is to help people cope with disaster.

A consultant to the International Red Cross and UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), her specialty is children. Much of her work is training teachers, psychologists and other mental health workers to help children and young people.

Such has been the history of Israel that for the past 30 years, Ofra Ayalon has had no shortage of work at home. Long before the rest of the world became the arena for terrorism, her country was regularly dealing with shootings, bombings, kidnappings and war. Tragically, this has not changed, but the world outside Israel has. In Britain alone, three schools have been directly hit by disaster in the last year - in Dunblane, London and Wolverhampton.

Dr Ayalon is in no doubt that schools - whether or not they are the scene of an incident - are in a unique position to mitigate the effects of trauma. "My years of experience have shown me that early help, within the first few days after an event, is best given in school, or as close to the school as possible, by teachers under the guidance of people who have specialist information and experience."

She was dismayed to learn of the closure of St Luke's Primary in Wolverhampton after a machete attack by a man earlier this summer. "Disrupting continuity after a traumatic event can lead to the disruption of people's sense of self, community and coherence," she insists. "Once a school is closed, parents are left with unanswered questions about how to respond to their children. And the children are without their usual structured day and activities. In this atmosphere, rumours and fears escalate and parents' stress is easily transmitted to their children. The parents are unable to carry out their usual activities and can become frustrated by clinging, distressed children."

If schools are the natural centres for this work, Ayalon and her team are convinced that "teachers are the most natural resource for helping parents deal with children's behaviour and reactions. And they should be given the skills and support to do so."

In Israel, Dr Ayalon's much-respected work has led to schools being used as a base for stress intervention work, even during the holidays. She and her team work with teachers behind the scenes, as she is convinced that the last thing that traumatised children need is strangers in their midst. The foundation of her work is not on therapy in the first instance, but on intervention based on what she calls a "salutogenic" approach. She explains: "Where a psychiatrist or psychologist will ask you 'what's wrong with you?' I ask 'what's right with you? How do you cope with difficult situations?' " She and her team in Haifa have developed this salutogenic system as a result of the belief that all people - and particularly children - are natural survivors. She looks for their ability to cope and helps them to capitalise on it. "We're selling health, not catastrophizing," she says in answer to critics in this country who have decried the swift arrival of hordes of counsellors at Lockerbie, Dunblane, and other places.

In her "rescue" programme, Dr Ayalon has devised group activities "to try to reinforce different kinds of coping. We look at the child's belief system, which is their spiritual way of coping." Her work at Haifa University's education department trains teachers in this methodology which has been adopted by schools all over Israel.

Another programme she has developed is a preventive one. COPE is the acronym for Community Oriented Preparation for Emergency, which trains teachers and mental health care professionals in what Ayalon calls "stress inoculation. " Its aim is to prepare people for emergencies by giving them the techniques to help children release their fears as they unwind.

In this country, the Centre for Crisis Management and Education, under the directorship of Elizabeth Capewell, runs a variety of courses for educationists, as well as a stress intervention service along similar lines to Dr Ayalon's.

It's a sign of our violent times that people such as Dr Ayalon and Elizabeth Capewell are part of a burgeoning industry, whether they like the term or not. Perhaps teachers need to learn crisis intervention methods while they are still training, in recognition of the fact that traumatic incidents really do happen.

The Centre for Crisis Management and Education can be contacted at Roselyn House, 93 Old Newtown Road, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 7DE (01635 30644).

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