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A role for social and emotional learning after a disaster

How the Journey of Hope program helps children who have experienced the trauma of disasters

6 min read


A role for social and emotional learning after a disaster

Unsplash/John Middelkoop

Communities have big messes to clean up after disasters destroy homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Some of the damage that follows a disaster is harder to measure. Children who have survived the trauma caused by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes and other catastrophes experience anger, anxiety, irritability, fear and more

Save the Children’s Journey of Hope Program is an age-specific curriculum “designed to help children and their caregivers understand, process and express their feelings and emotions,” according to its online description. The program has a heavy social and emotional learning focus that emphasizes how children can and should learn from each other. 

Journey of Hope’s origins

Tara Leytham Powell, Ph.D., co-developed the Journey of Hope program in conjunction with Save the Children in 2005 when schools began reopening after Hurricane Katrina. Existing evidence-based and evidence-informed programs for children recovering emotionally from a disaster weren’t culturally adapted to the needs of children in New Orleans.

In 2009, Powell enhanced the research behind Journey of Hope to qualify for funding and expand its reach. After finishing her doctoral studies, she completed substantial research while working with young survivors of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand

The Journey of Hope structure

Journey of Hope program consists of eight hourlong sessions:

  • Creating safety
  • Fear: Understanding and coping
  • Anxiety: Understanding and coping
  • Sadness: Understanding and coping
  • Anger and Aggression: Understanding and coping
  • Bullying: Understanding and coping
  • Self-esteem and taking action: I believe I can
  • Me, my emotions and my community

Sessions involve cooperative games, reading and dialogue. The activities help children understand and normalize key emotions … identify triggers and stressors … and develop positive coping strategies to deal with their emotions.

Journey of Hope was designed to be led by individuals with mental health backgrounds such as social workers, school counselors and psychologists; it can be co-facilitated with others.  The program is not therapy, stresses Powell, but things come up with the participants that are best handled by someone with a mental health background. (Children with deeper mental health needs are referred to a professional.) The program does end up doubling as a screening intervention, since it can elicit signs of deeper mental health needs.

“We don’t actually talk about the disaster,” Powell says, explaining that Journey of Hope participants are encouraged to talk about their current emotions. “We can’t tell kids to cope with a stress they’re not stressed about.”

The pandemic presented challenges to the Journey of Hope approach, since it relies heavily on interaction among the participants. 

Changing Journey of Hope for virtual programming required “adaptations on top of adaptations,” Powell says.

The value of a practitioner-informed perspective

The practitioner-informed aspect is critical to the success of a program such as Journey of Hope for several reasons, Powell says. Evidence-based programs are extremely strict, which makes it difficult to adapt them. “That really impacts their efficacy, because if you can’t make ad hoc adaptations, you’re not going to be effective with children,” says Powell. The Journey of Hope curriculum provides guidelines for each of its eight activities, but trained facilitators can accommodate different learning approaches as long as they adhere to the core elements. This flexibility also gives the facilitators more ownership.

For example, many facilitators have chosen to tailor the books that are called for by the curriculum to be culturally relevant to a specific population. 

While adaptations are key to making Journey of Hope work, Powell notes the importance of staying within the program’s original parameters and intentions. For instance, it can be tempting to put more children into a group than recommended, but that could end up harming the outcome.

Save the Children incorporates feedback from the program sessions that have made adaptations as Journey of Hope evolves.

How can mental health professionals and educators avoid being blindsided by disaster?

Communities can prepare for future challenges kids will face and avoid recreating the wheel. 

Social workers and others who deal with children’s mental health can take advantage of calm times to equip themselves for the frenzy that follows a disaster, especially in areas where catastrophes recur. For example, they can learn how to provide the Journey of Hope curriculum.

One social worker organized a therapeutic playgroup program post-Hurricane Michael that used the Journey of Hope caregivers curriculum for parents.  

If a disaster occurs before plans are in place, several resources can help jump-start efforts to support children’s mental health.

Seek out the established national nonprofits that have come to the community and ask how you can help. Safe spaces are often set up for children at shelters, creating the perfect opportunity for someone with a social work background or experience in trauma-informed care to make a difference. Powell also recommends going to community meetings and other similar gatherings where locals are planning how to rebuild. That’s a good way to find out what is needed and how to help.

How to deal with the exhaustion of helping others

Powell experienced firsthand the challenges of helping children while being personally affected by Hurricane Katrina. “It’s hard to help someone else when your own house has been destroyed,” says Powell. 

Always keep that in mind: To help clients and other traumatized people, keeping your own emotional batteries charged is crucial. 


A closing thought

One participant in the New Zealand version of Journey of Hope said, “I learned that sometimes people need to sort things out and that by talking to people it helps. And also I learned about how other people feel and what to do with them when they are feeling sad or angry.” (source)

Workers can clean the debris of a house that has been destroyed by a natural disaster. Children have debris also, in their minds and their spirits. A social worker or educator with a tool such as Journey of Hope is in a perfect position to make a difference.


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Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief’s nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She previously worked for Florida’s State Child Health Insurance Program, is a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion and has proofread professionally. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.