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Best Practices for Supporting Children in Crisis

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 2 of this article.

Noted psychotherapist Alice Miller examined the early lives of a diverse group of well-known individuals who had suffered significant childhood abuse or trauma. In her studies, she found many who had overcome their abusive experiences and went on to achieve success as adults in positive and creative ways. Others, like Hitler and Stalin, went on to develop “monstrously destructive personalities.”

The difference boiled down to one common element—the presence or absence of a “sympathetic witness.” The abused children who grew up to be successful, functional adults had, at some point in their history, an adult who listened to them and believed their stories, someone who was available to bear witness to the abuse they had endured at the hands of some adult in their lives. I use this rather extreme example cautiously, as I believe that all children need to know they’ve got someone in their corner—not just those suffering from trauma or abuse. Sometimes a picture of “Mrs. Murphy” or a big stuffed animal is enough. But there are times when more personal and interactive support is called for.

Unfortunately, many teachers who are willing to provide this support are so overscheduled and have so many students, they end up doing their listening and connecting on their own time or referring students in need when help is, indeed, available. More often than not, however, we are rushed, distracted and stressed when we are needed most. As a result, our responses—while occasionally expedient—aren’t terribly supportive. Instead of making ourselves available to give a student attention, acceptance and validation, we give advice and admonishment. We lecture. We dismiss or mollify. We tell them to just get busy. We get angry and impatient. We criticize and blame. We compare them to someone who is worse off or tell them they’re lucky it’s not worse. We minimize the seriousness of what is very real to them. We make excuses for the other person.

In short, we do all kinds of things that don’t feel safe or supportive to someone who’s upset. The most effective responses come when we can be patient, objective and empathetic, which can be tough when we’re getting ready to give a test or start a lesson. Acknowledging an upset student (“This is important; I want to hear what you have to say”) and setting aside a more convenient time to listen (“I’ll be free when the bell rings” or “Let’s talk after I get this group started”) is a reasonable alternative, one that will generally appease even a fairly distraught student.

Another option involves providing a safe space for students in distress—something not readily available in most schools. Some facilities have a counselor, or perhaps a counselor’s office, but as one teacher noted, “Faculty lavatories, which are small and private, are off limits to the kids. The nurse’s office is usually locked. With the exception of the occasional empty classroom, there aren’t many places to go if you just need to have a good cry.” In general, schools are not well suited—philosophically or architecturally—to private emotional expression and processing, or even solid one-on-one exchanges. In general, the message in most school settings is this: “You are emotionally safe as long as you suppress your emotions.”

In our haste to get through the academic material, and our abiding focus on all things cognitive, we end up with an emotional environment in which children’s feelings are inconveniences for us and liabilities for them. This is also the case in classrooms in which adults insist on perpetual cheerfulness, and those in which adults and children have not learned to respect certain feelings and sensitivities. Safety can also be compromised when peers ridicule or attack a child’s emotional expression, especially when the adult does not advocate or support the distressed child.

But suppressed feelings take their toll, and the costs of repression can include the buildup of stress hormones, feelings of isolation and rejection, numbness and withdrawal, the desire to “blot out the pain” with nicotine, alcohol, drugs, food or other self-destructive actions, increased stress and physical illness, depression, passive-aggressive behavior, accusations against others and the increased likelihood of an eventual blow-up or acting-out.

Further, Frederic Flach has observed that people who pride themselves on “never falling apart” have more difficulty learning from their experience, lack insight, create problems for those around them and are more vulnerable to the impact of change. All emotions carry some kind of information or “message,” says DeBeaufort. Rather than suppressing or ignoring feelings, she recommends staying with the feelings until we grasp what they are trying to tell us. But this option is rarely encouraged culturally, and perhaps even less so in a learning environment.

The majority of emotional “crises” most teachers encounter generally require little more than validation, and sometimes a little time and space to regain some balance. I’ve seen extremely agitated children settle down quickly without having to repress or stuff their feelings (but instead, letting go of their emotional upset and shifting into more rational, cognitive functioning) when their complaints were met with understanding and acknowledgement. I remember one of the first times I was able to pull this off. It was shortly after learning about techniques like validation and active listening at a conference, when one of my students came in from the playground nearly hysterical because someone had called her a camel.

This happened a few minutes before my class was returning and I was, conveniently, free to listen. After a minute or so, she took a deep breath and looked at me. I had to fight the impulses of some old, bad habits, and instead of responding with my usual, “What did you do to her?” or “Just ignore her,” I agreed that it hurt when people called us names. “Yeah,” she said, exhaling, relieved. And that was it. I’ve always had the feeling that she didn’t want answers, and she didn’t want advice. (And I’m reasonably certain that she didn’t want to be yelled at, either.) She just wanted permission to be upset. Once that was granted, she was, in a word, done.

A prerequisite to understanding and validating someone’s emotional experience is the ability to listen well. In these busy times, listening has become something of a lost art, but listening well conveys our respect for another person’s experience and reality. “When you listen carefully to another person, you give that person ‘psychological air,’” says Karen Irmsher. “Once that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem-solving.”

Listening provides a forum for learning to solve problems and express feelings responsibly. Good listening skills can also reduce a child’s stress, build connections and lay the groundwork for greater cooperation. When we can make time to listen to what kids have to say—truly one of the greatest gifts we can give a child—there are a few things to keep in mind. Let’s remember, for example, to focus on them, hear what they’re really saying, offer eye contact and acknowledge the message we’re hearing.

Let’s reflect and clarify as needed, encourage them to Say more, and respect the enormity of their trust by maintaining confidentiality and taking them seriously. (Some of the most painful betrayals I heard about came from people who had bared their souls to a teacher, counselor, coach or administrator and either had their confidence violated—typically, by having their concerns reported to their parents—or were punished, laughed at or told to apologize to someone who had been abusive to them.)

Let’s also watch the tendency to interrupt, show impatience or rush the speaker, ask trivial questions, make assumptions or jump to conclusions. And let’s resist the urge to minimize or fix the problem, deny their concerns, cheer them up or use their problems as an excuse to promote our own agendas, say what we think they should have done, top their story or project what we would have done or how we would have felt. A tall order, indeed—one for which few adults have had strong models or much preparation.

Finally, let’s watch the temptation to rush to a solution. Good listening allows us to deal with the affect first. When students know that you accept their feelings, no matter how irrational, then you can begin to understand what’s behind the feeling. When it’s time for solutions—and this, by the way, comes after students have had a chance to process and disengage from the grip of the affect—we can help by asking, rather than telling.

Read part 2 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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