Critical incidents: Five principles to plan for the unplannable

Every critical incident and every community's response is unique, says Beck Ferrari, but some key principles can promote recovery rather than exacerbate trauma

Every critical incident and every community's response is unique, says Beck Ferrari, but some key principles can promote recovery rather than exacerbate trauma

28 Feb 2023, 5:00

Critical incidents can rock even the steadiest staff teams. A serious traffic collision. A sudden death. A violent assault. These are tragedies that no school should have to face, but occasionally they will have to and the effects on teachers, staff and pupils can be profound.

As well as being distressing, such events are unexpected, making them difficult to plan for. Many schools will have a critical incident policy in place to outline their actions and responses to unexpected events, but it can be difficult to know how to adapt that policy to specific circumstances and be confident that the decisions you make promote recovery rather than exacerbate trauma.  

Research led by Professor Stevan Hobfoll looked at what helped following traumatic events across communities worldwide. From this, researchers have identified five principles that contribute to creating the best environment for recovery.

The UK Trauma Council, a project of the Anna Freud Centre and the first UK-wide group bringing together expertise in research, practice, policy and lived experience in childhood trauma, has developed a set of tools to help foster these five principles.

Our new ’Critical Incidents in Educational Communities’ resources are rooted in research, free to access and designed to help schools ensure everyone feels safe, calm, connected, in control and hopeful when the unplannable happens.

Feeling safe

After a potentially traumatic event, as well as tending to any physical safety needs, schools also need to consider psychological safety. As adults who know their pupils well, school staff are ideally placed to use their familiarity and the structure of the school day to contribute to that sense of safety.

Information that is honest and in line with young people’s development and understanding is also key to helping young people feel safe, knowing they can trust the adults around them.

Feeling calm

Distress is an understandable and normal response following critical incidents. As such, it’s important to remember that emotion regulation mustn’t seek to hurry children and young people through their distress. Instead, the aim is to find ways that help them not to feel so overwhelmed by it.

Feeling connected

Feeling connected to and supported by others is central to children and young people’s recovery. By using a flexible approach, schools can facilitate opportunities to further relationships between staff, friends and other pupils to reduce any feelings of isolation. 

Feeling in control

By their nature, critical incidents can diminish the sense of control children and young people might have over their lives and the world around them. Schools can help by finding ways to involve pupils in the decisions that affect them and give them some influence over what happens after the event.

Feeling hopeful

Fostering healthy recovery after a potentially traumatic experience isn’t about seeking to diminish or avoid the negative aspects of the event. It’s about finding ways to be hopeful about the future. Drawing on culturally appropriate concepts of hope is important, whether that’s rooted in pupils’ faith or in their community’s values.

Using these principles to underpin planning, training and decision making in the response phases can help leaders feel more confident that their actions will help promote recovery.

The UK Trauma Council’s resources include templates to help schools review and update their critical incidents policy, and an INSET training package to enable senior leaders to deliver whole-staff training. We have also developed specific frameworks on subjects including how to deliver difficult news, how to monitor pupils at more risk of long-term difficulties and how to work with external agencies. Lesson plans offer ideas for supporting emotion regulation, and there’s advice on meeting with parents and carers during emotionally charged times too.

Every critical incident is unique, and so is every school community. There is no one-size-fits-all model for how to respond to a critical incident, but these research-informed principles demonstrate a way of working which acknowledges the community’s distress while laying the foundations on which a shared, positive vision for the future can be built.

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