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How should schools prepare for a critical incident?

Shane Moran, author of 'The Clouds That Can Surround Schools', discusses how schools should respond and manage difficult situations

Posted by Lucinda Reid | March 06, 2017 | School life

When a critical incident occurs, the resulting impact on a school community can be immeasurable. Most schools have a critical incident policy, and in parallel to this, a critical incident team. The reality is, however, when a critical incident occurs, most are still ill-equipped to deal with its impact. In fairness, it is difficult to be fully prepared, but there are some basics steps that can be taken in order to cope.

The sad reality is that a tragedy can impact on any school and at any time. When such an event occurs it can leave all involved shocked and overwhelmed. The school environment is a great deal different from what it once was. Today, the school environment takes a more holistic approach, mindful not only of academic achievements but on the emotional and psychological welfare of the student.

Schools must review their critical incident policy or plan annually with their care team; included in this review, it is important to hold a critical incident drill, similar to that of a fire drill. It is important also that all those in the care team are assigned jobs or tasks matching their individual talents, and when the drill is carried out all members are familiar and efficient with their task.

The key to dealing with any critical incident is the vital role of school management, namely the principal. Unfortunately, the principal may feel it necessary to do everything, and indeed could be left with dealing with all aspects and impacts of a critical incident. This is not good practice. It is important that the principal both delegates and guides the critical incident team and ensures that all members of staff and student body are guided and supported. The principal is advised to draw on the support of the critical support team and outside supports like the psychological support team.

Plan for the worst, organise frequent briefing meetings for the staff and students. Keep them informed of everything that is happening, this provides clarity of purpose and dispels any rumours about the incident that may arise. Communicate effectively with external agencies like support services and the media. Most of all, keep parents informed of all support available to them and their children; encourage students to come to school and avail of the support made available. The best place for the students during these difficult times is in school, with their friends and the teachers. The principal and his or her staff must maintain routine. Routine is so important during a crisis, because it is familiar and safe, so keep to the class timetable at all times. Students unable to attend class should be encouraged to meet with the guidance counsellor or psychological support team. The school motto at this time should be ‘routine’.

It is important to never underestimate the impact that a severe critical incident can have. It can leave staff and students in a state of shock and grief, struggling to grapple with its implications. Often those in the front line immerse themselves in dealing with the incident and neglect the emotional impact that such an event can have on them. It is only when the critical incident has passed, and when all those in school return back to a sense of normality, that the principal and members of the critical incident team are left holding on to the emotional impact of such an event.

Self-awareness is so important, as is recognising that those on the front line can suffer from a level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder similar to that of military personnel returning from a conflict zone. When you are prepared for this, you can address it. Self-care is so important, it is so important to remember the five R’s: ‘rest’, ‘recognise’ the signs of stress and anxiety, ‘recreation’, ‘reaching out’ to family and friends, and finally ‘realise’ when you need that support.

Eventually, all things pass, even when tragedy occurs. The school needs to, and must, return to normality. In the weeks and months ahead it is important to maintain all the support structures available to enable both staff and students process what has happened and be empowered to move forward.

For more information, Shane’s book, The Clouds That Can Surround A School, can be found on Amazon.

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