Engaging Children and Youth, Via K-12 School Curricula, to Build a Culture of Disaster Preparedness

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Kimberly Hayward


As impacts from natural disasters continue to increase, large portions of the country remain unprepared for disasters. Although children and youth are disproportionately impacted by disasters, they can also be major assets in preparedness. Reaching children with disaster preparedness information helps build coping skills but could convince their parents and the larger community to prepare as well. Engaging children and youth in schools specifically can play a key role in overcoming barriers to preparedness and convincing more Americans to prepare for disasters.
This thesis examines how reaching children and youth with disaster preparedness information, via K–12 school curricula, could help the United States build a culture of disaster preparedness. The topics covered include the following:
1. The current state of individual and community preparedness and what it means to be prepared for disasters,
2. The benefits and challenges of engaging youth populations,
3. How past social marketing campaigns, such as anti-smoking and seatbelt enforcement, successfully shifted societal, cultural, and behavioral norms, and
4. An analysis of the specific curriculum components needed to foster cultural and behavior change in disaster preparedness.
The findings from the research suggest that reaching children and youth via K–12 school curricula represents a significant area of opportunity for the United States. Social marketing and behavioral change theory demonstrate that an underlying shift in values must occur before widespread behavioral change can take place. Indeed, past successful public health and safety campaigns, such as anti-smoking and seatbelt enforcement, employed a multipronged approach over several decades to shift social norms, reframe values, and impact the value exchange process to generate behavioral change. Education has had a major impact on value formation, and the school system’s prominent role in every American’s life makes it uniquely suited to enable societal change. Therefore, schools provide the ideal venue for fostering a shift in values around disaster preparedness, ensuring that future generations will internalize the importance of preparedness and take steps to prepare for disasters and emergencies.
Analyzing disaster preparedness curriculum content and incorporating case studies from France, New Zealand, and the United States establishes a set of criteria for designing a high-quality disaster preparedness curriculum. The French case study offers an example of a mandatory curriculum adhering to many evidence-based practices for curriculum content, while the New Zealand example provides an illustrative comparison to U.S. disaster preparedness curricula. The resulting curriculum content recommendations fall under four categories: curriculum scope; engaged learning; parental, school, and community involvement; and effective evaluation. The ideal K–12 disaster preparedness curriculum would adhere to as many of the suggested recommendations as possible.
1. Curriculum Scope
1.1. Includes the following five essential dimensions, as advocated by the United Nations:
1.1.1. The science behind disasters,
1.1.2. Safety actions and procedures,
1.1.3. Hazard risk drivers,
1.1.4. Community-based risk reduction measures,
1.1.5. Linking preparedness to broader school-wide efforts to address resilience and safety.
1.2. Contains key messaging for disaster preparedness while customizing for local risks, needs, and culture.
1.3. Integrates vertically across grade levels, including a graduated series of learning objectives that provide students with a progressively deeper understanding of disaster preparedness content.
1.4. Infuses disaster preparedness topics into different subject areas to foster a holistic treatment of concepts.
1.5. Applies behavioral research in disaster preparedness to improve learning outcomes. For example, facilitates self-efficacy, a sense of personal responsibility, social support for preparedness, and adaptive capacities.
2. Engaged Learning
2.1. Incorporates a range of learning styles into the curriculum to appeal to diverse student populations.
2.2. Includes interactive, participatory, and experiential learning formats to deepen learning outcomes.
2.3. Incorporates game-based learning, virtual reality, and other technologies where possible and appropriate to augment classroom lessons and enhance message salience.
3. Parental, School, and Community Involvement
3.1. Includes parental engagement throughout the curriculum to increase household preparedness actions. For example, incorporates parent-child homework activities in lesson plans.
3.2. Ties preparedness curricula to broader school safety efforts, for example, by leveraging mandatory school drills as a student learning opportunity.
3.3. Includes a civic engagement component in the curriculum that requires middle- and high-school-aged students to implement a local preparedness or mitigation project in an area that interests them. For example, students may wish to address local flood risk, help increase the preparedness of local nursing home residents, or teach younger children how to stay safe during emergencies.
4. Effective Evaluation
4.1. Employs testing to measure knowledge gained and surveys to measure increases in self-reported preparedness actions.
4.2. Evaluates children’s self-efficacy and other attributes associated with increased preparedness levels.
4.3. Observes children as they apply learning via role-playing scenarios, drills, creating an emergency supply kit, and other hands-on activities that tangibly increase preparedness levels.
4.4. Assesses whether the curricula meet criteria intended to enhance outcomes, particularly the involvement of parents, schools, and the broader community.
These criteria comprise a set of recommendations for designing a high-quality K–12 school curriculum for disaster preparedness. To facilitate the implementation of such a curriculum, this thesis makes recommendations to minimize resource expenditures and to convince school districts to incorporate disaster preparedness topics into already full school curricula.
First, the United States may consider adapting an existing disaster preparedness curriculum, such as FEMA’s Student Tools for Emergency Planning (STEP) program, which currently covers only the fourth and fifth grades. Such a curriculum could be expanded for additional grade levels and improved to adhere to best practices in curriculum design. Additional recommendations for STEP include conducting a STEP program evaluation, investing in a marketing and promotion plan for STEP, and developing a teacher training resource for STEP.
Second, the United States must examine ways to convince school districts to incorporate disaster preparedness content into full school curricula. Specific options include the following:
1. Align K–12 preparedness curricula to existing national curriculum standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards.
2. Incorporate student-focused curricula into existing school safety efforts, including Emergency Operations Planning and drills.
3. Include disaster preparedness education in existing public health education requirements.
Such options would offer the United States the best possible chance of realizing the critical goal of incorporating disaster preparedness topics into school curricula. Imagine a world where children grow up understanding the importance of preparedness and have an intrinsic motivation to plan for disasters and emergencies. More lives could be saved, fewer resources would be required of professional first responders, and economic damages might be reduced when disasters strike.

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