Critical incidents: How five simple principles can help education settings recover from potentially traumatic events
2nd February 2023 | By: David Trickey, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Co-Director of the UK Trauma Council, a project of the Anna Freud Centre
Today, the UK Trauma Council, a body of childhood trauma experts supported by the Anna Freud Centre, launches a set of free, easy-to-use resources for schools, colleges, early years settings or alternative provisions who have experienced potentially traumatic ‘critical incidents’. In this article, Co-Director of the UK Trauma Council David Trickey explains the five evidence-based principles that underpin a response to critical incidents, and why education settings are an ideal place to help children and young people recover.
Much as we wish to protect children and young people from experiencing potentially traumatic events, there will be times when that is not possible.
Sadly, sometimes events such as these will occur that affect all, or a large part, of an educational community such as a school, college, early years setting or alternative provision. This could be tragedies such as the death of a student or teacher, or a violent attack outside the school gates, or an accident that occurs on a school trip. For those of us who work in recovery from trauma in schools, these are often referred to as critical incidents.
It can feel overwhelming for educational professionals when events affect not just an individual, but large groups of children and young people, as well as those around them such as their peers, families and educational professionals. Those affected, including staff, may be distressed and have some difficulties initially, but over time most will recover.
However, for some, these difficulties will persist. Educational communities have tremendous potential to provide precisely the sort of environment that best supports recovery. Sometimes however, it can be difficult to know what to do for the best. Is it better to talk openly about the events, or better to focus on the future? Is it better to bring in outside professionals to provide support, or better to use those adults with whom the children and young people are already familiar?
Those of us working in this area, as I have for many years, hear these sorts of concerns from teachers and others working in education settings. That’s why the UK Trauma Council have developed a new set of accessible resources to help, guided by five evidence-based principles that are easy to implement following a critical incident and can successfully support recovery.
These principles are based on research evidence that guides our understanding of how potentially traumatic events affect children and young people. According to Professor Stevan Hobfoll and 19 other leading experts, these are:
How do you help the children, young people, families and staff to feel safe, despite what has happened? The critical incident may have changed the way that they see the world, themselves and others, and things may appear very unsafe.
People will feel safer if they are protected from exposure to further trauma and if basic needs are met. For children and young people in particular, returning to familiar routines and structures, and maximising consistency can really help them to feel safe again. Sometimes reports and even footage of the events on news media and social media can focus on the most sensational and potentially traumatic aspects of events, and without a more balanced diet of information, people may struggle to feel safe.
How can you help people to feel calm? After a stressful event, most people can return to their resting level of arousal. But after a critical incident, some people may stay on a high state of alert.
Those working in educational communities are often already brilliant at helping children and young people to regulate their emotions. They do it all day every day – making sure that people are stimulated enough to be engaged, but not so aroused that they can’t concentrate. This can be particularly challenging when working with a group of children and young people after a critical incident because different people will respond to different approaches (e.g. one child might need to run their energy off, another might need to sit and colour for a few minutes).
Some may feel very isolated and alone, they may even actively withdraw from others. And yet connection, relationships and social support can be crucial components that will help them get through critical incidents.
Educational communities are particularly well placed to identify those children, young people, families and staff who may be becoming isolated,
and it can be particularly helpful to invest time and energy in enhancing opportunities for connection.
For example, if a school wanted to share information about a recent critical incident to parents and carers, an online meeting might be the easiest way to do so. But holding a hybrid event, where parents and carers can actually come together, receive the information but also have a chat with each other, may be more beneficial. Tea and biscuits may not be particularly useful in and of themselves, but when they facilitate social gathering and connection, they can really help.
The research actually talks about ‘self-efficacy’ which is the belief that you can exert a positive influence over things that happen around you. This belief may well have been shattered by the critical incident. Educational communities can ensure that rather than doing things ‘to’ or even ‘for’ children, young people, families and staff, they can actually do things ‘with’ them. Or even better, help them to do them themselves.
Without minimising or dismissing people’s views about how awful the event may have been, it can be helpful to balance things with something of a positive view about the future. A headteacher interviewed by the news following a dreadful coach crash may have talked about how tragic the event was, but also how the school community would pull together, support each other and get through it together.
Schools and other educational communities can provide structure, routines, and predictability. They have adults who are familiar, trusted and concerned. They can offer social support from peers, and support families.
Teachers and school staff may not be therapists. But they are well placed to be therapeutic and, by leaning on the research evidence, they can provide an amazingly potent post-trauma environment for children, which will maximise their chances of recovery.