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BRAVO Principals...
Help Staff and Students Cope With Stress

Previously I wrote about the courageous leadership of Texas principals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (See BRAVO Principals Calm the Storm.) Those principals, in schools overflowing with Katrina evacuees, were focused on encouraging their staff and students to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Then Hurricane Rita came along and wreaked devastation on the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Two weeks after Rita hit, at least 40 school districts in southeast Texas remained closed because of power outages, lack of water, and other damages from the storm. Many of those school districts were the same ones already experiencing stress because they had welcomed students displaced from Hurricane Katrina in late August.

BRAVO Principals

BRAVO is an acronym for Building Relationships with Actions that Value Others. "Principals can act in many ways that value others," said Sandra Harris, author of BRAVO Principal!, and each month I will share in this column some of those ways. The ideas shared will not be directionless, busy-work activities; instead they will be 'tactical actions' -- actions with the purposeful intent of building valued relationships with others.

Harris, an associate professor in the educational leadership program at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, is author of other titles including Best Practices of Award-Winning Elementary School Principals (Corwin Press, 2005) and seven titles for Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Her newest book, BRAVO Teacher, was just released.

The principal's role in helping faculty and students deal with the stress of natural disasters is incredibly important, but the reality is that disaster happens in many ways. It happens through loss of jobs, illness, divorce, death, and in countless other ways. All of those events bring stress into the lives of students and staff.

Because catastrophes of different levels always pose a threat, BRAVO principals -- principals who understand the value of Building Relationships with Actions that Value Others -- recognize stress-related behavior and do all that we can to help faculty and students cope with life everyday.

BRAVO Principals identify stress-related behaviors. Catastrophic events, whether large or small, have a tremendous impact on those directly and indirectly affected. BRAVO principals understand that, and we are aware that an important part of our role is to help faculty and staff cope with stress. The National Mental Health Association has identified the following behaviors and feelings as common reactions to stress.

disbelief and shock fear and anxiety about the future
emotional apathy
irritability and anger
sadness and depression
feeling powerless
excessive crying
stomach aches, back pains, headaches

Principals who look for those signs in faculty and students are able to provide important support through difficult times.

But identifying stress behaviors is only the beginning. Once identified, it is up to principals to lead in implementing coping strategies on the campus.

BRAVO Principals help faculty and staff cope with stress. Obviously, BRAVO principals cannot turn back the clock, but we can re-direct everyone's focus on the future in positive ways. In difficult times, there is much we can do to help faculty and students cope with the stress of a catastrophe. After all, school is a place of promise. Our job is to keep the promise of a better future at the forefront of all we do -- even in times of great stress. Based on the National Mental Health Association tips for coping, here are seven ways in which principals can help schools remain places of promise during difficult times.

P -- Prioritize projects. Structure all projects in small bits. When people are under a great deal of stress, a major project is impossible, but a small project is something that can be handled. Model giving out small tasks to faculty, and expect faculty to do the same for students. Prioritize and complete one small project at a time.

R -- Reactions are different. Understand that while there are certain commonalities about how individuals react to stress, everyone responds in different ways. Do not be quick to compare or judge. For example

  • Pre-schoolers may revert to sucking their thumbs or baby talk; continually remind them they are safe.
  • Elementary-aged children may be worried about their parents. Do no tell them not to worry; instead listen to them and encourage them
  • Teenagers may act as though they are not concerned at all; provide opportunities to talk anyway.

0 -- Open up to communicate. Times of stress are times to encourage people to talk, verbalize, vent, vocalize! After the hurricane, on the first day that teachers returned in most schools, they felt a need to share their experiences with each other. Include the students in this when they return to school after a difficult experience. Remember, talking is one of the best ways possible to deal with trauma. Establish an environment where everyone who needs to can open up and communicate about their experiences.

M -- Mention progress. Several times a day mention to everyone that progress is being made everyday. Getting back to "normal" is a tremendous need for everyone. It is our job to remind them that, even though the progress may appear to be small, progress is indeed being made.

I -- Investigate needs. Investigate needs to understand best how to support the people on your campus. Find out who needs clothing, housing, hot water, or transportation. Schools in the recent hurricane tragedy opened their gymnasiums and showers to faculty and their families. Many of the schools provided free meals to faculty and students the first week back to school.

S -- Speak up -- ask for help. As principal, you are the voice of the campus. If you see that there is a need that cannot be solved with the expertise and abilities on campus, ask for help. When the whole community pulls together to help the school, it helps the community too. Speak up for your students. In the recent hurricane, students missed two weeks of school; when grades were turned in at the end of 6-weeks, one teacher failed all of the class. That is a time for you to speak up and help that teacher deal with this difficult time, and help the students get back on track. You can support teachers and speak up for students at the same time. When you do that, everyone is stronger.

E -- Evaluate yourself, take care of yourself. The first thing we are told to do in the event of an airplane emergency is put oxygen masks on ourselves -- even if we are traveling with a small child. We cannot help others unless we evaluate our own circumstances and take care of ourselves.

BRAVO principals understand the need to help faculty and students cope with stress. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said, "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith." When principals support everyone on the campus through stressful situations, the school becomes a place of promise. When the school becomes a place of promise, we are able to turn from doubt and distress and look toward the future with renewed energy.

Article by Sandra Harris
Education World®
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