The overall objective of the Response Phase is to calm the fears and anxieties of students and staff, reestablish a sense of emotional safety and security, and begin to restore a school environment that is conducive to learning. The Response Phase is the period during which the crisis intervention team members are activated to implement the school's emergency response plan. Click here if your school has had a recent crisis
The mental health response to a crisis or disaster begins with assessing the exposure level of violence among students and staff. Team members should be cautious of interviewing any eyewitness to the incident until after the law enforcement investigation has been completed and security is reestablished on the school site.
Crisis team members can begin piecing together information from various sources to gain a clearer picture of where intervention efforts should begin. In the triage process, those students and staff closest to the scene of the violence should be seen first (physical proximity,) followed by those who knew the victims or the injured (emotional proximity.)
All students and staff can benefit from being educated about the normal reactions to danger and traumatic stress. In the process, response team members may discover that many students and staff have previously experienced similarly distressing life events. The current crisis may re-awaken their fears and emotional wounds, highlighting their needs for support, rest, and comfort.
One effective way to screen for those students at risk for developing additional emotional distress and symptoms that may warrant further intervention is to have students respond to a principal's letter describing what they were exposed to during the traumatic event and how they are currently coping.
Click here for a sample screening letter from the principal that schools may adapt to their needs.
Responding to Students in Distress
Students who come forth with descriptions of distress in response to the sample letter or a conversation with a teacher should be referred to a school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker for further mental health evaluation.
The report titled, The Psychological Consequences of Terrorism, by the "Institute of Medicine," featured the accompanying image, "The Range of Emotional, Behavioral and Cognitive Effects," which suggests that the majority of individuals exposed to an act of mass violence will experience emotional distress. A smaller number will exhibit behavioral changes in daily life, and a much smaller number will experience psychiatric illness.
From this model we know that the majority of students and staff will benefit from support, reassurance, and information about the normal reactions to a traumatic experience and exposure to danger.
Psychological First Aid
Psychological First Aid is an intervention that builds on concepts of children's resilience. It acknowledges the seriousness of the experience of danger and increased feelings of vulnerability that often follow exposure to a traumatic event. Students frequently fear that there will be a recurrence of the danger. An important aspect of Psychological First Aid is to reestablish the "protective shield" of adults. Crisis intervention team members can help students to understand and recognize common reactions to danger, help students verbalize their feelings, and help identify traumatic reminders that trigger renewed fears.
Psychological First Aid, administered by a skilled school mental health professional, allows for the expression of difficult feelings and assists the student in developing coping strategies and constructive actions to deal with fear and anxiety.
Click here to access the Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide, Second Edition.
Supporting Teachers in the Response Phase
Meeting with teachers is essential before the crisis-counseling work with students begins. Some of the crisis team members should educate teachers about common stress reactions, including social, emotional, and behavioral changes they may observe in students in the classroom. Teachers need to know how they can refer students to school counselors, psychologists, or social workers during the day when students need additional help. Teachers should encourage students to let them know when traumatic thoughts or feelings about the incident interfere with learning. Appropriate referrals and early intervention can minimize angry or emotional outbursts and acting out that disrupt the classroom.
Working with Parents
Parents can benefit from one evening meeting that should include the following information:
- New or iincreased security measures at school and in the surrounding community
- Opportunities to review the school's Safe School Plan
- Crisis counseling services for students and how students can access those services during the school day
- Education about common child reactions to danger and trauma
- Information on the importance of adult role models in coping with traumatic stress
- A question-and-answer period
- Contact information for future questions