Crisis prevention is a topic every school counselor needs to know thoroughly. We’ve seen an unprecedented explosion of student crises across the nation in the last 10 years and a rise in child anxiety and depression, suicidal ideation and other types of student crises.
A student crisis can be defined as one of the “three hurts,” namely if students physically hurt themselves (self-injury or suicidal ideation), physically hurt another person (fighting or having homicidal thoughts) or are harmed by someone else (bullying or child abuse). This also includes intents and threats of physical harm. Luckily, there is good news: crisis prevention strategies can be quite effective in keeping students safe. And classroom instruction is the starting place for student safety.
When I couldn’t find the exact crisis solutions I was looking for, despite extensive research, I decided to create them myself. In the 2017–2018 school year, I began piloting crisis prevention mini-lessons in my seventh-grade classroom instruction. The following year, we had all three school counselors incorporate crisis prevention mini-lessons into all classroom instruction. The results were phenomenal and continue today.
MTSS and Crisis Prevention
In keeping with the multitiered systems of support (MTSS), classroom instruction is a Tier 1 support, meaning all students should be receiving these lessons. Presenting regular classroom instruction to the entire student body means all students know who you are and how to reach you in a crisis.
Keep in mind that it is totally fine to start with baby steps. “Regularly” for some school counselors might mean beginning with just one fall and one spring classroom lesson. Then, work with your administration/staff to add more classroom instruction each year or semester. These mini-lessons are the perfect setting to teach students the social/emotional skill of employing various positive coping habits to avoid or handle a possible crisis situation.
Classroom Instruction Logistics
Crisis prevention at Tier 1 is the key to decreasing student crisis incidents. The classroom instruction provides an environment where we can implement crisis prevention strategies with every student on campus. To plan out your classroom crisis prevention lessons:
Start by presenting your plan to your principal to get buy-in.
Next, make face-to-face contact with the teachers where you will be teaching the lessons. Spend a few minutes introducing your program to the teachers if necessary, and let them know what the classroom instruction will entail.
Finally, send teachers a follow-up email with the classroom instruction topics and some proposed dates to get your lessons on everyone’s calendar.
Once you have your lesson logistics planned out, you are ready to start decreasing those crisis numbers. Regardless of the lesson topic, if your goal is to decrease student crisis, you will need to build about 10–20 minutes of crisis prevention information into every lesson. To do this, begin every classroom lesson with the following crisis prevention reminders and information.
School Counselor Requests vs Emergencies: Explain or review with the class how to submit a request to see the school counselor for nonemergencies. These requests can take whatever form works best for your school, such as teacher request emails, paper request slips, electronic request sheets, etc. Having a nonemergency request protocol in place is a must-have step for crisis prevention; walk-ins should only be accepted for three hurts emergencies (and, if needed, for nonemergencies at a few scheduled times per week). To prevent or limit crises, you have to be implementing your crisis prevention strategies through your Tier 1 and 2 supports (classroom instruction and small-group sessions); if you are repeatedly pulled or distracted from that by nonemergency walk-ins, that is a problem.
Three-Hurts Emergencies: In every lesson, teach or remind students what constitutes a three-hurts emergency or crisis, and then tell them how to get immediate help if they have/know of one (such as coming to your office or alerting another staff member). Also remind them of the limits of confidentiality, namely that every adult in the school building has to work with another adult(s) if students tell them of a three-hurts emergency. Explain that this is because the top priority is to keep students safe. It is also ethical best practice to mention here that all adults in a school building are mandated reporters and what this means for students.
Crisis Prevention Mini-Lesson
Once you have reviewed the protocol for handling emergency vs. nonemergency requests, your class will be ready to transition into a quick mini-lesson on crisis prevention. Possible mini-lesson topics could be: positive coping habits, stress and anger management, child abuse awareness, suicide prevention, teen dating violence, etc. After some brief instruction on the topic and how it can help students, lead the class in a short crisis application activity such as a conflict resolution role play, a grounding exercise or a discussion about proper sleep habits.
For example, I started one of my 15-minute crisis prevention mini-lessons asking the class how skipping a meal could be problematic and possibly lead to a three-hurts problem. No one knew the answer to my question, but I did hear the word “hangry” muttered from the back. Then, I showed the class a short video clip of nutritionist Shayna Komar discussing how mood and thinking are affected by skipping meals. Next, we used the think-pair-share strategy to discuss how this could cause a crisis. In another mini-lesson, I reviewed the four steps of conflict resolution with my students (ignore, walk away, “I” message, get adult help), and then we role-played while the rest of the class watched. I would “bother” a few different students by tapping my pencil on their desk, and they each had to use the four steps to deal with this conflict.
So, that’s it. It was that simple; just a lot of hard work with a few creative crisis prevention strategies incorporated into every classroom lesson.
Having a plan in place to help prevent crisis keeps our students safe, and it also protects us from burnout. Working with hurting children can be so hard on the heart, but there is nothing that lifts my mood in the workplace more than helping to prevent that hurt.
Stephanie Lerner was a full-time elementary and middle school counselor for more than 10 years in Del Valle, Texas. She is now transitioning to part-time school counseling.