School Crisis Response:
Reflections of a Team Leader
Jeffrey C. Roth
© Copyright 2015
Being Present: In the Skin of the Responder
Here’s what I learned from my work in a hospital with patients who knew they would die at a young age. When a person is experiencing emotional pain, sometimes just being there, being fully present for the person can be comforting. I learned this from a young adult with cystic fibrosis. He did not want to be greeted always with a comment or inquiry about his illness. He did not want sympathetic statements. He preferred when someone cared enough to be present, friendly, and ready to talk about a topic as light as sports or as heavy as love or death. When he felt comfortable, the conversation he initiated ranged in subject matter from light to heavy, depending on what he wanted to discuss. He instructed us about his wishes. He was a good teacher who died when he was twenty-one.
The lessons that young man taught are helpful to know when responders are strangers entering a crisis with no knowledge or history of serving those affected by a traumatic incident. Responders must be open to being present and finding comfort in an uncomfortable situation. Comfort while being fully present without feeling they must say something immediately to make things better. Responders communicate care and empathy with an expression, a gesture, a word or a phrase. A lecture or sermon is unhelpful. Making contact, being friendly, establishing rapport, communicating quickly, yet patiently, that ‘I am here to listen when you are ready to tell your story. That eventually, I can help you cope and find meaning in an incident that seems random, meaningless, and incredibly painful. That eventually, I can help you find some degree of power and control, when powerlessness, loss of control, and loss of hope are overwhelming.’ Brymer et al. (2012a) caution that we should not assume that all students or staff want to talk with us. The calm, supportive presence of a responder often helps people experiencing distress feel safer and better able to cope.
Those responding to crises in school settings usually have not had the time nor opportunity to establish relationships with grieving people in need of psychological first aid. Responders often enter the scene as strangers to the individuals affected by a traumatic event. Rapport must be established quickly in a stressful environment where the helping relationship is unique. Trust normally means that one person can depend on another to follow through with expected behavior or support, especially in difficult times. Trust means the helping person will be understanding, respectful, and caring of another’s feelings. Under normal circumstances, trusting relationships are established with quality interactions occurring not just once, but over time.
The crisis responder usually does not have the luxury of a previously established relationship. What does it mean to enter a crisis as a stranger and to be fully present for those affected? The impression must be immediate that the responder is stable, dependable, caring, and trustworthy. A few factors help make this possible. First, an extreme situation has created intense need for support. Second, a responder is explicitly identified as part of a team available to provide that support. Third, the responder has chosen to be there and has the personal qualities, training and skills needed to quickly establish rapport.
‘As a responder, I am comfortable with my role respecting your feelings, focused on your needs, and ready to establish a helping relationship.’
Beyond preparation and training, the crisis responder is strengthened by perceptiveness, self-reflection, and a desire to serve. The responder must develop the ability to remain reasonably calm and flexible during stressful conditions.
Qualities and Skills of the Crisis Responder
- Having the ability to be with people who are suffering emotionally without making them feel better right away;
- Having the comfort and courage to see and deal with strong feelings under difficult circumstances;
- Having the ability to establish rapport quickly, but the restraint not to impose on those not wanting help;
- Having the comfort and courage to recognize and deal with conflict under difficult circumstances;
- Having the ability to focus attention, be creative, and solve problems in a crisis;
- Having the ability to feel and express empathy, but maintain emotional boundaries so as not to be immobilized by intense feelings;
- Having the insight to know your own issues so you don’t confuse them with other people’s issues;
- Having knowledge, comfort, and sensitivity to work with developmental and cultural differences;
- Understanding that different people cope differently with challenging situations;
- Understanding that crises present opportunities for people to understand themselves and others, resolve conflict, and reaffirm meaningful goals.
The Art of Listening
A basic, essential skill often used by the crisis responder is the art of listening. It is a skill that allows us to be present, show empathy, and connect in a meaningful way with those who grieve. Skilled listening is one of the ways we perceive the cues of people affected by trauma. They tell us where they are emotionally and what they need. They tell us with their words, or by not saying a word. They tell us with body language, facial expression, intonation, and actions. Sometimes, we listen to silence.
Wachtel (2011) describes a sensitive form of listening that attends to what is not conscious, what is muted, what is experienced with unexpected affect or does not seem consonant with the person’s behavior or present experience. Sometimes we look and listen with our clinical “third” eye and ear. There may be significant meaning hidden behind the spoken words. This means being fully present and observant, with heightened perceptiveness on many levels. It means using our senses, clinical judgment, and intuition. Seeing and hearing needs and feelings that are not obvious or overtly expressed. Seeing interactions — the dynamics of the group. There is so much happening during a crisis that our own perceptions may be insufficient. Being present often means relying on the presence of fellow team members to check observations and perceptions with them. Leaning on them, and listening to each other for ideas and support.
Say Something That Invites Reactions
While it is clearly important not to feel compelled to direct a salvo of words at traumatized individuals, it is also important to recognize there are times when the responder should say something. Regardless of whether words come easily or feel awkward, the responder should generally make at least a brief statement of introduction — who I am and what I offer, with an invitation to those affected to tell their stories, or talk about their reactions. Otherwise, those experiencing trauma might feel that expressing themselves is not acceptable. The openness of responders to listen and discuss the incident can encourage others to voluntarily share, rather than withhold information or emotions (Demaria & Schonfeld, 2014).
Part of being present is constantly reaffirming a sense of safety and being ready to intervene to mitigate further psychological trauma. The interventions of caring responders after the traumatic event also provide opportunities to perform secondary triage — to evaluate the degree of psychological risk and possible need for further treatment.
Active and Reflective Listening
Our ability to communicate is challenged during crises when the need for effective communication is magnified by chaos, noise, fear and profound sorrow. Under any circumstance, the quality of communication can foster feelings of powerlessness or empowerment. Effective communication skills can be learned and they can be developed. Some years ago, after drilling and practicing “I-statements,” paraphrasing, clarifying, summarizing and more, an overwhelmed graduate student protested to me, “I used to talk, now I communicate.”
It is true. When we are new at using effective communication skills, it often feels awkward or uncomfortable. It is important to remember that skills are not substitutes for being genuine and for genuinely caring. Over time, they begin to feel more natural as they become part of us, and can help us be fully present during crises.
Active listening is the tool that aids being present when interacting with anyone experiencing a traumatic incident. It requires that the listener help the speaker clarify and elaborate the story being told. The listener is empathic and attentive to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. It is a useful communication skill when people begin talking personally about how they were affected by the incident. Active listening is supported by key skills that enable empathic understanding—encouraging, paraphrasing, and summarizing (Ivey et al., 2010).
Encouraging involves the active listener expressing brief verbal and nonverbal cues that signal acceptance of what is being said, including graphic or depressing details of a traumatic incident. The speaker is comforted and encouraged to continue talking. Paraphrasing occurs when the listener repeats back to the speaker the essence of what was said. It tells the speaker that the listener heard the content with an opportunity to clarify meaning and check for accurate understanding. Summarizing helps the speaker feel heard and clarifies complex issues during the course of discussion. When the listener summarizes, it helps to integrate and organize expressed ideas and feelings, and to transition between topics or to end the session (Ivey et al., 2010).
Reflective listening happens when the listener identifies and repeats back the essence of the feelings behind the speaker’s words and nonverbal behaviors. It tells the speaker that the listener heard the emotions and empathizes with them. It can clarify complex feelings, encourage the speaker to elaborate and to express emotions in more depth, or to correct an inaccurately reflected emotion. Reflective listening is like paraphrasing feelings rather than words. It is often helpful when the acknowledgment of feelings is brief, or combined with paraphrasing or summarizing.
When the reflective listener feeds back such phrases as “You sound really worried/sad/confused/or frustrated” or “Sounds like you are feeling angry” or “That must have been scary,” the effect can be supportive. Reflective listening can be especially helpful when the speaker’s words carry strong feelings and the feelings are not easily stated. Individuals who have experienced traumatic events may find it easier to tell the story of what happened without overtly expressing feelings about it. Reflective listening allows the speaker to feel an emotional connection with the listener that can reduce tension, stress, and the weight of disturbing feelings (Ivey et al., 2010).
Once feelings are recognized, it may be easier to work with them toward constructive outcomes. However, since not everyone welcomes reflection of their feelings, it is generally more helpful after rapport is established and when the reflected feeling is accurate. The responder should never impose discussion of the incident or associated feelings upon any affected individual or group. Discussion of difficult events and emotions should always be voluntary, and the option should be clearly stated. Being present means allowing affected individuals to tell where they need to be, rather than the responder presuming where they should be.
Remaining Present in the Presence of Suffering
The pain witnessed by responders can be intense in the extreme. Movement toward client recovery can be painfully slow (Jellinek & Okoli, 2012; Johnson, 2006; Levine & Kline, 2007). Responders generally enter the scene with defenses down, and with senses taking in suffering in order to understand, empathize, and plan appropriate interventions. They must proceed with caution and not immerse themselves emotionally to the extent that they become immobilized and unable to be fully present for those who are traumatized. It is their tragedy. It is their friend or peer or teacher who has died. It is their grief, and the responder is there to help them cope.
A sense of humor helps us manage many aspects of life, although generally not during crisis response. Perhaps the situation is too intense or sad, and the need to stay focused trumps the use of humor. More often, relief comes from fascination with some of the unexpected turns in human interaction, or appreciation for the thoughtful, supportive acts of students, school staff and members of the crisis team. It is true that crisis and opportunity are often intertwined. During a response, there are inevitable teachable moments when students can be helped to understand their feelings, the feelings of others, their struggle with powerlessness and despair, and their ultimate power and resilience.
Appreciation for Caregivers
Angela Aiello (2010) explores the expression of gratitude as an aspect of self-care. Remembering to appreciate survivors, team colleagues, and yourself can be a powerful, renewing force in the midst of and in the aftermath of a crisis. It takes only a moment to extend a word of acknowledgment to a team member or to write a note of appreciation to a school counselor or administrator. I was generally surprised to get notes of thanks, but also felt recognized and appreciated. Appreciation helps fuel resilience and the ability to remain “fully present” for those experiencing emotional trauma. Such notes helped keep me energized. Otherwise, I would not have kept the following notes of thanks that convey the meaning of crisis response.
“I can’t begin to thank you enough for all you have done in the past weeks. Your steady presence, your focus on the kids’ needs, your untiring effort and your ability to lead us in the direction of what needed to be done was so supportive and helpful. You lead without coercion and facilitate group cohesion. Thank you so much for being here.”
“I want to express my appreciation for you and the crisis team. You did a great job of leading and focusing the group and you seemed to know just when to intervene and when to listen.”
“Thanks so much for your help and support in the classroom on Wednesday. I could not have made it through class without you! You did a really wonderful job with the kids and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate all you did!”
“Thank you so much for all of your help during our recent crisis. The addition of all of the wonderful people who assisted our students and us over the week made the situation go much more smoothly. You are a group of caring and talented people. Thanks again for your efforts and support.”
“Thank you for your endless patience and support in the last weeks. Our every need was answered. Thank you also for letting me “vent” my frustrations. I pray that we never need to come together in a tragedy like this again, but find it comforting to know so much support is there when needed.”
“Dear Colleagues, Many thanks for your support and expertise yesterday. We appreciate your quick response and your sensitivity during a very unsettling time. I was greatly reassured by your involvement and I think that feeling spread to all of our kids. I understand _____ may join us for lunch tomorrow and is eager to see his friends. Thank you for helping us to smooth the way for this dear little boy!”
“Thank You!! From the Education Association Leadership Team. We want to extend our thanks and appreciation for the time and effort you have given in the past few weeks to our colleagues. Know that your efforts to ‘raise up a saddened and wounded soul’ help strengthen our hopes during a troubling time.”
“Jeff and Marty, I wanted to let you know how impressed I was with your leadership last week. Your ability to see the big picture while organizing so many different aspects of a crisis is amazing. Seeking input from a team before putting ideas into place is the mark of true leadership. I commend you both.”
I came to appreciate many fellow responders over the years and some have become friends for life. Among team members, it is natural that some gravitate toward one another for support during and after an incident. Having a partner can really help. Someone you can spill your guts to. Someone with whom you can express your frustration or just talk about what you see happening. Someone who can help translate your perceptions into planning to meet the most recent needs of those affected. Sometimes the team as a whole served as the “sidekick” for the responders. We briefed and debriefed, examining our response effectiveness (PREPaRE Model: Examine Effectiveness). After particularly traumatic responses, designated facilitators took us through telling our stories, including our most challenging moments, how we coped and continue to cope and be present.
Through the years, colleague Marty Tracy served on the team. He’d spent many summers saving lives as a lifeguard with the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. Perhaps those experiences helped Marty keep a cool head through school crises. His ideas and practical judgment were always on target. He could think and move under stress. His usual work in the school district was to coordinate health and physical education, school nurses, and driver education. His character, demeanor, and experience as a teacher and a lifeguard made him a knowledgeable responder. He was dependable, calm under stress, and someone who could be leaned on. Marty viewed himself as a support person, and not a crisis counselor. Although he felt that counseling was a role for others, his talents really did extend to counseling—certainly for team members, administrators and teachers, but at times also for students who needed someone to listen. They all felt comfortable with him. Marty never recognized his ability in this area, but we did. He could primarily be described in PREPaRE Model parlance as a “Getter”— one who took care of logistics. He could run to district office, when necessary, and get things done. He would return to the scene with assurance of substitute teachers, district administrators to secure the school perimeter, or with stacks of letters and handouts for parents, still warm from the graphics department printers. I’m not sure Marty realized how much we valued his contributions in crises and as a friend.
Post Script: “I Should Be There”
Soon after my retirement from the school district, a highway car crash took the lives of a father, mother, and son. Their daughter, a high school student, survived with minimal physical injury. The crisis response team was mobilized, focusing on the middle school of the deceased boy and the high school of the surviving girl. I remember thinking, “I should be there.” But the team was in good hands, under effective new leadership. They were well educated through training and experience. I no longer belonged with them during a response. Perhaps afterward, if they wanted to talk, they know I am here for them.