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Read an Excerpt
Classroom CrisisTHE TEACHER'S GUIDE
By Kendall Johnson
Hunter House Inc., PublishersCopyright © 2004 Kendall Johnson, Ph.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Are Critical Incidents?
Critical incidents are events that overwhelm an individual's capacity to cope and that negatively affect classroom behavior and climate. They can be psychologically traumatic, causing emotional turmoil, cognitive problems, learning difficulties, and behavioral changes. The effects of a critical incident can be lasting, depending upon individual resiliency as well as the quality of the person's experiences during and shortly after the incident. The degree and rate of recovery of a person affected by crisis is determined in part by how much he or she is surrounded by supportive, caring people who help him or her deal with the aftermath of the experience. Actions taken by school personnel can help restore individual and classroom stability.
The recent siege of school shootings, bombings, civil disorder, terrorist attacks, and gang violence bear testimony to the possibility of large-scale, dramatic trauma. The victimization or death of a classmate, an attempted suicide of a friend, or a shocking event witnessed by a group happen far more frequently in the lives of schoolchildren than was the case evenjust a decade ago. Because the classroom is not insulated from the world at large, events that take place in the classroom often occur in response to events in the world.
Some frequently asked questions about critical incidents are:
How often do they happen in a classroom?
It is quite likely that any given class will experience one or possibly several critical incidents in a year.
How do they affect a class?
An event that happens to one child affects other classmates vicariously. A class is an intimate group, and just as experiences of individual family members affect the rest of the family, one student's experiences will affect the rest of the class. Shared difficulties can bring classes together or pull them apart, affecting class climate, behavior, and performance.
What is "acute stress response"?
Most students will be upset by extreme events, but will remain functional and able to respond to your leadership. Some may be overwhelmed. Of those who are overwhelmed, some will overreact (become agitated) and some will underreact (shut down). These reactions are both forms of acute stress response (ASR), and they both create temporary problems in students' thinking, feeling, and behavior.
What is "delayed stress response"?
Sometimes the effects of a crisis do not surface until weeks, months, or even years later. This is called delayed stress response. It is thought that delayed stress response happens when the strategies used to cope with the critical incident prohibit the emotional processing of the event. Later, as the individual attempts to adapt to the changed circumstances, memories and feelings about the incident emerge, causing distress and further attempts to cope. Both temporary problems at the time of the crisis and delayed problems can later escalate into serious disorders such as anxiety or depressive syndromes, dissociation, or even posttraumatic stress disorder.
Why must I become involved?
For two reasons. First, studies have shown that the way in which an adult responds to individuals and groups following crisis can significantly affect the outcome of that experience. Through effective, caring intervention, negative acute and delayed stress responses can be minimized. Second, the process of effectively intervening with individuals or groups is a tremendous group builder and can create a sense of cohesiveness and belonging in a classroom.
Can crisis affect learning?
Crisis does affect learning by creating instability in the life of the classroom and in the life of the student. Trauma alters brain chemistry and function, causing students to have difficulty in concentration, memory, and behavior. Further, the classroom climate and process can be altered in a way that sabotages the learning environment.
Can the district help me to help my class?
Yes. School districts have various resources available. Your district may have a crisis team in place, and your school may have one also. Crisis teams can consist of school psychologists, counselors, teachers, or outside resource personnel who can provide consultation and direct assistance. They may be available to consult with students you refer for assessment and support, they may be available to help you address crisis needs in your class, or they may be available to answer questions and suggest strategies for you. Begin by discussing the situation with your building principal and other teachers.
Chapter TwoManaging Behavior During Emergencies
Emergency situations create intense stress that can affect student behavior-individual and group. Examples of such incidents can include:
* A student's extreme personal crisis
* Crisis events at school or in the community
* Natural disaster
* Shooter or bomb on campus
* Confinement in classroom during lockdown
* Exposure to another person's injuries
* Evacuation from classroom or school
You can manage most students who have extreme reactions to events like these, but there are a few things you need to know. You need to know how to size up students' response levels, how to identify the two general response patterns to extreme stress, and how to implement the approach strategies for managing each. You then need to know how to handle the group when some class members are reacting poorly. Finally, you need to know how to support students afterward. Fortunately, these tasks are fairly simple and straightforward.
Levels of Response
When bad things happen, we respond. Our response includes our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Response levels to any situation range from mild to extreme. Acute stress reactions fall on both extremes of the behavioral spectrum; that is, they can be described as either extremely shut down or extremely agitated.
Note that I use the word extreme to describe acute stress reactions. By their very definition, reactions that fall under the ASR (acute stress response) umbrella aren't moderate. Note also that I refer to a spectrum of possible responses to crisis. That spectrum is centered in normal, fully present awareness. Full awareness is what we experience when we walk into a room with the intention of seeing what's there, or when we listen intently to what another person is saying. In such a state of awareness, we are open to new information. From such a state of awareness, our response level can extend either way: toward greater engagement with the situation on the one hand, or toward less engagement on the other.
It is useful to divide the spectrum of response to crisis into seven degrees. Notice that item four, "fully present," falls right in the middle of the scale:
1. Acute stress shutdown
4. Fully present
7. Acute stress agitation
The table on page 8 describes each of these degrees of response in more detail.
Position on spectrum Description
Acute stress shutdown Unable to respond
Faded Becoming disconnected from the situation and from one's own reactions
Objective Personal involvement is secondary to an overall perspective
Present Fully aware and focused on the situation
Involved Some degree of personal involvement and subjectivity
Overreactive Personal involvement overrides a broader perspective
Acute stress agitation Unable to control or direct behavior
Acute Stress Reactions
Again, the two response extremes are shutdown and agitation. They look very different:
Pale, shocklike appearance Flushed, sweaty appearance
Submissive Panic, enraged, or hysterical affect
Blunted affect, slowed behavior Rapid, undirected, ineffective action
Extreme: paralysis, immobility Extreme: uncontrolled
If you recognize any of these reactions in a student, it may be wise to intervene to help stabilize him or her. This is because in order to stabilize a situation, you must first stabilize the individuals involved. Each of the two forms of ASR can be handled, but they must be dealt with differently.
But before we look at different ways to intervene in the two respective forms of ASR, let's consider the general principles that apply to dealing with both forms of ASR. First, they must each be dealt with at the levels of thought, emotion, bodily actions, and behavior. Second, the goals for intervening at each of these levels is the same, whether the reaction is one of shutdown or agitation. See the table below for a summary of the goals of intervention in ASR.
Managing ASR: Intervention Levels and Goals
Thoughts Focus attention Feelings Stabilize feelings Body Adjust pacing Behavior Direct action
Third, because our thoughts-what we think about a situation and how we frame it in our mind-are easier to change than our emotions, physical reactions, or behavior, when intervening in a person's response to crisis, it is helpful to start by offering strategies for changing his or her thoughts. In particular, you should attempt to shift the person's focus, self-talk, and mental images. (More about each of these suggestions is included below.) Then proceed to dealing with emotions, physical reactions, and behavior, respectively. The tools offered below are presented in that order.
Tools for Dealing with Reactions to Crisis
Use the following tools-in roughly the order in which they are presented here-to manage extreme behavior so you can keep control of your class and stabilize the situation. Be aware that the tools are used in a different way to deal with students who are agitated than with those who are shutting down.
No matter which tool or tools you use, the way you approach students in the midst of crisis affects their behavior. It is important to stay calm and positive.
Imagination can fire fears. Work at keeping students focused on the here and now. If a student is shutting down, direct his or her attention outward. If he or she is growing agitated, shift his or her attention back to himself or herself.
* Self-Talk/Other Talk
The words we choose to describe crisis events shape our expectation regarding what is going to happen, and those expectations in turn guide their reactions. Use clear language when talking to students. Don't use extreme or evocative words when normal words will do. Speak in calming ways. Use reminders like "Let's stop and think this through"; "Things will work out"; "Stay focused and stay strong."
Mental pictures guide our actions and our response. Mental pictures can be used to calm ourselves down or push us into action. They can be directly suggested or simply embedded in conversation. Tell your students to visualize positive outcomes.
Feelings can strongly influence both physical reactions and thought processes. These responses can be intensified (in the case of shutdown) or softened (in the case of agitation) by words and images. Also, alternative sets of feelings can be elicited by directing attention to different aspects of the situation. Use a calming tone of voice, body posture, and facial expression. Look the person in the eye and hold their gaze. Stand right in front of them as you speak. Tell them what you see happening in order to redirect their attention.
By changing a person's breathing patterns, both their thoughts and physical reactions can also be changed. To lower the level of reaction in cases of agitation, teach students "four-count breathing": Inhale deeply for a slow count of four. Then hold the breath for another four count. Next, release the breath slowly over a count of four. Then hold it out for a count of four. Repeat the process four times. This breathing technique initiates the relaxation response.
Alternatively, to escalate a student's reactions in the case of shutdown, simply have him or her take several panting breaths quickly ("quick breaths"). This technique initiates the arousal response.
* Bodily Pacing
To focus thoughts and control feelings, direct students to intentionally slow down their body movements. Alternatively, if you want to help a student mobilize thoughts and get in touch with feelings, direct him or her to pick up the pacing of movements.
* Directing Physical Energy
During agitation, the body is jerky and hyperactive. Redirecting body energy to more deliberate, productive tasks allows that energy to dissipate. During shutdown, the body is inert, awaiting direction and conserving energy. Stretching, moving around, and taking purposive action allows the energy to flow again. Ask a student who is shutting down or agitating to accompany you while you do things. Walk, move, and speak at a pace similar to the student's, then gradually slow down if he or she is agitated, or speed up if he or she is fading. When the student is responding favorably, give her or him an appropriate task to complete.
Give students something to do. This will help to either elevate or calm down their reaction levels and redirect their attention more meaningfully. Some suggested actions are simple: "Take a walk" or "Sit down." Others are more complex: "Take this box to that person." "Organize these papers." "Please pack these lunches." The purpose of the action is twofold: to appropriately direct energy and focus, and to reestablish a sense of control and self-worth. Activities must be within the range of the student's ability at the time.
Everyday rituals can increase people's awareness, help them balance their emotions, and focus their energy. Some rituals mobilize people's energy to face challenges. Sports teams, for instance, sometimes have everyone touch hands together and yell their team name before a game. A teacher might have all the students take a deep breath together or sing a brief song. Even just having "everyone put their work away" reinforces a sense of normalcy. Having students do a "quickwrite" before having a serious discussion can also help normalize the moment. Other rituals can bring comfort and a sense of community support. A brief moment of silence together or holding hands in a circle followed by everyone taking one step inward can remind students that the group has cohesiveness. Intentionally use your existing classroom patterns and routines as rituals during stressful times.
* * *
The extreme reactions of agitation and shutdown are discussed below; then group management and support are considered.
Dealing with Agitation
When those around us become agitated, they represent a risk to themselves and others.
* Catastrophic thinking
* Panic, rage, hysteria
* Rapid breathing, sweating
* Agitated, frantic, and unproductive behavior
Your goals are to:
* Refocus the student's attention inward.
* Help the student shift his or her expectations.
* Attend to the present moment.
* Help the student lower his or her oxygen and adrenaline levels.
* Initiate the relaxation response.
* Guide the student to lower his or her activity level.
* Redirect his or her activity toward something useful.
To implement these goals, try the following (for more detail, see "Tools for Dealing with Reactions to Crisis," starting on page 10):
* Use a soothing and calming tone; encourage talking.
* Use neutral descriptions; suggest positive outcomes/images.
* Use distracting talk and actions.
* Initiate and lead four-count breathing.
* Sit the student down; change his or her location; model relaxation.
* Help the student stretch; take a walk; do things slowly.
* Give the student something useful to do.
Excerpted from Classroom Crisis by Kendall Johnson Copyright © 2004 by Kendall Johnson, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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