Managing critical incidents in schools

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By Mehmet Agdiran
on 01 July, 2017

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How can schools make use of EPs to support them to manage critical incidents?

The recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester and the Grenfell Tower Fire have tragically meant that critical incidents are on the top of the agenda for many educational, health and care professionals.

In the recent ‘Resilience and Recovery’ briefings the EP team at One Education have been doing on behalf of Manchester City Council, we have focused on resilience, coping strategies and psychological first aid. You can view the materials used to support these briefings in our Educational Psychology Resource Area.

In this blog I revisit the doctoral research I carried out that looked at how schools may use educational psychologists to manage large and small scale incidents.

Critical incidents

A critical incident is “a sudden, unexpected event that is distressing to pupils and/or staff, it may involve violence against members of the school, a serious accident or the sudden death of a child or teacher (all the more traumatic if witnessed by others), or it could be that the school is subjected to major vandalism such as an arson attack” (Houghton, 1996, p59). This definition focuses on traumatic events that happen within a school context and typically affect multiple people.

Critical incidents and post-traumatic stress disorder

Relatively few individuals involved in critical incidents will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-V (APA, 2013) PTSD can affect persons of any age experiencing the event either directly or indirectly. Consequently, any member of the school community following a critical incident is potentially vulnerable. PTSD onset is influenced by a range of factors, including:

  • The severity and duration of the event
  • Proximity to the event
  • Family and social support
  • Early childhood experiences
  • Personality
  • Mental health
  • School attainment and ability.

Critical incidents and schools

Given that schools are often (after family) the most significant support system for children, it is unsurprising that schools and other professionals have developed school practices around ‘preparing’ for (before a critical incident) and ‘dealing’ with (after a critical incident) such eventualities.

Research suggests that educational psychologists have helped schools to prepare and deal with critical incidents in the following ways: 

Strategies to prepare for a critical incident:

      1. Develop or review the school’s critical incident contingency plans (or similar policy documents).
      2. Curriculum development (e.g. PSHE materials) around critical incidents, trauma and resilience.
      3. Develop staff understanding about trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
      4. Develop staff understanding around factors that increase PTSD, decrease PTSD and increase resilience.
      5. Indicators of PTSD in children and adolescents of different ages.
      6. Availability of a range of reading materials for differing ages and abilities about loss and trauma.
      7. List of local voluntary services for longer term support, e.g. Victim Support, Cruse following traumatic bereavement to access if needed.
      8. Knowledge of services for critical incidents available within your LA and an understanding of how each can help. 

        Strategies to deal with a critical incident (following the event):

      9. Assessment of the situation and action planning to meet need.
      10. How and when to communicate to staff, parents and students.
      11. Advising and supporting school staff on how to help children.
      12. Advising and supporting parents on how to help children.
      13. Direct support from an educational psychologist to individual or groups of staff.
      14. Direct support from an educational psychologist to the senior management team.
      15. How to identify which staff/children might need more support.
      16. If appropriate, direct support from an educational psychologist to individual or groups of children.

Original research

As part of my research, I developed a questionnaire based on what research told us about how schools ‘plan’ and ‘deal’ with critical incidents. For each of the 16 strategies named above, I asked school leaders form an urban Inner London Borough: “How important is this for your school?” (1 = not at all important, 4 = very important) and “How likely are you to seek support from EPS for this?” (1 = very unlikely, 4 = very likely).

Results and Discussion

Research Question 1: Which aspects of managing critical incidents are considered important to schools?

The average (median) score for each way of managing a critical incident is three or above. Therefore, the results suggest that schools on average found all 16 ways of managing critical incidents ‘important’. 

The strategies that were considered important by the highest number of school leaders were:

      • Assessment of the situation and action planning to meet need following a critical incident
      • How and when to communicate to staff, parents and students following a critical incident
      • Advising and supporting school staff on how to help children following a critical incident
      • Direct support from an educational psychologist for individual or groups of children.

Research Question 2: Which ‘important’ ways of managing critical incidents are schools likely to seek Educational Psychology support for?

Schools on average reported that they were likely to seek support from educational psychologists for all strategies, except for strategy 1: Develop or review the school’s critical incident contingency plans, and strategy and 2: Curriculum development around critical incidents, trauma and resilience. Nevertheless, for every strategy there were some schools that were likely and others that were unlikely to seek educational psychology support. There was not a general consensus between schools in their likelihood to seek educational psychology support for various ways of managing critical incidents. 

Research Question 3: Is there a different level of importance given by schools to ways of preparing for critical incidents (before event) and ways of dealing with critical incidents (following event)?

The average ‘preparing for critical incidents’ (strategies 1-8) score across the participants had a median score of 3 (important), and the average ‘dealing with critical incidents’ (strategies 9-16) had a score of 4 (very important). This suggests that schools considered ways that ‘dealt with’ critical incidents more important than ways that ‘prepare’ for them. The variability between participants’ scores was small; in other words, all schools found it important to both ‘prepare’ and ‘deal’ with critical incidents.

Additional analysis

Eight participants supplied additional qualitative comments. Content analysis suggested that a number of factors impacted on possible use of educational psychologists in preparing and dealing with a critical incident.

Ease of accessibility, cost, time and availability, quality of relationship to school EP (quality of previous service) and awareness of educational psychology capacity to offer the service may be important factors.

Further opinion: Psychological First Aid as a suitable intervention

The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2011) recommend the use of Psychological First Aid (PFA) following a traumatic event rather than debriefing. Whilst not addressed within this research, this point is critical. Whilst ‘direct’ support is important and sought after by schools, EPs should not use debriefing as part of their key intervention. Debriefing follows a set structure which requires people who have a shared traumatic experience to recount the experience by focussing on thoughts, feelings and behaviours in relation to the incident. Asking people to talk directly about a traumatic event soon afterwards can interfere with the normal coping strategies that many people use which can often be ‘not talking’ about the event and can be experienced as intrusive and unhelpful. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) (2005) guidelines highlight it should not be used.

Final comments

Whilst my original research used a small sample of 18 school leaders, it highlighted that schools were in agreement that all the ‘ways of managing critical incidents’ included in the questionnaire were at least ‘important’, and that they were likely to seek educational psychology support for most of these. It is interesting that the sample considered ‘dealing’ with critical incidents as more important than ‘planning for them’. Unfortunately, the recent tragedies highlight the value of robust and well planned response to critical incidents. It is my opinion that educational psychologists supporting schools in pre-emptively preparing for such events, is an excellent use of time and resources.    

For more information around critical incident planning and management, contact our team of educational psychologists on 0844 967 1111.

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