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Supporting Children in Crisis, Part 2

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

Don’t miss part 1 of this article.

“We really don’t need sympathy or advice from others,” writes Associate Professor David Hagstrom, referring to the process of seeking clarity about crisis and concerns. “But what we do need are good, honest and direct questions that cause us to reflect on the situation differently. Clarity is what we need.” Lawrence Shapiro observes that we often fail to credit kids with the capacity for solving their own problems. “Too frequently, we jump in to help before help is really needed, or we assume. . . children should have decisions made for them,” he says.

He notes that kids are capable of solving even very complex problems when given the opportunity and encouragement to do so. Working with the assumption that the students have the answers and the ability to figure out solutions allows us to interact in the role of a guide. The questions we ask help them to explore their options, anticipate possible outcomes and take responsibility for working things out.

“I don’t think that emotional safety has anything to do with being in an environment where you feel free to fall apart or spill your guts at the drop of a hat,” claims school administrator Pat Freeman. Instead, she recommends creating an environment in which “a child understands that it is normal to have good days and bad days, successes and failures,” one which emphasizes learning coping skills. Elaine DeBeaufort agrees: “The old choices were express and make outer trouble or repress and make inner trouble. . . There is, however, a way out of this trap.”

Our brains are wired, she notes, to allow us to recall emotions which are registered in the long-term memory of the limbic brain, and deal with them in appropriate ways at appropriate times. It’s also worth remembering that respecting peoples’ feelings and creating a space for them to have feelings is quite different from pressuring them to express their feelings. Additionally, feeling an emotion and describing (or analyzing) it are different processes, using different parts of the brain.

While there is value in each process, as DeBeaufort notes, “I believe our emphasis on expressing feelings has inhibited our freedom to feel.” Very often, simply allowing the feelings to be there, without “adding the burden of conscious expression,” or asking the child to defend or explain the feelings, is all we need to do.

For those times when feelings are too “big” to contain, or when they’re likely to interfere with the learning or teaching process, it is possible to accommodate students in ways that don’t disrupt instruction. Simply sticking them behind a desk and demanding their attention is not likely to accomplish much. An upset student—one in survival mode or the throes of an emotional hijacking—doesn’t have access to the parts of the brain she’ll need to cognitively process, store or retrieve whatever it is we’re trying to teach.

A few minutes alone (perhaps out in the hall with a couple of tissues), a trip to the water fountain for a drink of water or a cool-down lap around the gym can work wonders, and get a child to a place, physically and emotionally, where she can deal with the feelings from a less reactive or survival-oriented part of her brain.

A high school teacher in one of my workshops made a practice of giving each of his students a paper pass at the beginning of each semester which said, “I’m having a bad day. Leave me alone.” He created the system to allow some flexibility for kids were too upset to really get much out of the class academically but had nowhere else to go. He said that kids rarely used the pass unless something fairly extreme (and typically, pretty recent) had happened. “It’s more of a safety net,” he said, one which allowed an upset student to stay in class, safe to have his feelings.

Writing is another outlet for some students. Exasperated by a constant stream of complainers and tattle-tales, as well as her own difficulty in curbing her habitual non-supportive responses when interrupted, one third-grade teacher developed a “tattling form,” which her students could fill out when they were having a problem. The five parts of the form—your name, the name of the person bothering you, something nice about that person, describe the problem and tell how you can solve the problem—allowed upset students to get their feelings out on paper and focus on a solution, while buying the teacher a little time so she could approach the kids less reactively and at a more convenient time.

Other teachers allow time for kids to go off to a more private corner of the room (or school) with a journal. “Journals are great listeners when you’re sad, angry or grieving,” writes teen author Jessica Wilber. “You can tell your problems and secrets to your journal.” Other teachers provide outlets in the form of activities such as group discussions and sharing circles, places in which kids can openly express feelings and look for solutions to problems. “More often than not, these are the troubles that children keep to themselves, obsessing about them alone at night, having no one to mull them over with,” says Goleman. This type of activity, when structured to respect participants’ needs for dignity and confidentiality, allows feelings and disagreements to be resolved before they escalate into something more overtly destructive.

Certainly, school and community crises will require our attention to students’ affective needs. Marla West recalls when, during the Vietnam War, one of the corporate weapons manufacturers held their annual stockholders’ meeting in the auditorium of her junior high. While school was in session, busloads of protestors and police encircled the school. And although West recalls her teachers being calm and organized, none of them talked about it at all. Their silence did little more than “fuel the students’ fears that a riot would break out and we would be captives.”

Fortunately, this tradition of silence seems to be changing somewhat. For example, students returning to Columbine after the April 1999 shootings had the benefit of mental health counselors and nurses who were on hand if needed. There was also a “designated ‘safe room’ for those overcome by emotion.” Linda Lantieri noted that “most children want and need to talk about what happened.” She also assured parents and educators worried that talking about disturbing issues and events would be frightening to children, telling them that our silence could make the situation even more scary. Students of all ages with whom I spoke after the tragedy agreed, confirming how reassuring it was to have had teachers who spoke with them about what had happened, and asked about how they were coping.

In the past, schools that responded to school and community crises often did so with help from outside mental health resources. More and more, however, district personnel are being trained as crisis response team members. Training may include building awareness of potential problems and reactions students may experience, learning to identify at-risk students, improving listening skills, implementing problem-solving techniques for students to use, dealing with parents or the media, long-term and ongoing intervention and specific skills for handling different types of crises.

These skills are valuable, not only for debriefing kids after a critical incident and making appropriate referrals, but also dealing with affective issues on a more immediate and day-to-day basis. Teachers are often the first line of defense in crisis prevention, even in schools in which counselors, psychologists or social workers are available. In some schools, a child’s potential contact with support staff may be limited by high adult-student ratios and logistics. (And many of these individuals shared the frustration they felt when their energies were fragmented by paperwork, management or supervision duties and increasing demands for an ever-broadening range of expertise including scheduling, career advice, crisis intervention, family support and clinical work, to name a few.)

Consultant William Fibkins acknowledges that “not all counselors will be willing to share their helping role with teachers” and that “some teachers will say that helping students resolve personal problems is not their job.” But he also calls this kind of territoriality and fragmentation a waste of valuable helping resources at a time when these resources are desperately needed.

Read part 1 of this article.

For a bibliography, see the book from which this article was excerpted: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools (2001) by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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