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From Crisis Comes Opportunity
Gail Roaten, Ph.D., LPC
Thursday March 01, 2007
by: Gail Roaten, Ph.D., LPC

Section: Inside Insight

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When accurately translated, the Chinese word for disaster, konjii, has a dual meaning: danger and opportunity. School counselors must be mindful that any crisis for a student, a campus or community represents not only danger for those involved but also an opportunity for growth.

Crises are a normal part of life experiences and are generally defined as a problem that a person or group can’t resolve. The result of accumulated stress or a single devastating event, crises tax an individual’s or group’s usual problem-solving or coping skills. A crisis often has the potential to upset an entire school community; thus school counselors must address the welfare of all involved, such as students, parents and family members, teachers, etc. Four main categories of crises are:
  • Developmental: Events occurring naturally in human development (especially transition) that produce anxiety, such as graduation, death of a family member, pregnancy, etc.
  • Situational: Events that are unpredictable, unexpected and beyond an individual’s control such as crime, accidents, death (including suicide), school/community disasters
  • Existential: Conflicts that accompany issues of purpose and/or responsibility leading one to reflect on life’s meaning such as leaving home, going to college, being a teen parent, etc.
  • Environmental: Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, etc.
Crises are time-limited, usually lasting from four-eight weeks, and short-lived, either because the individual cannot sustain intense stress or the tension dissipates, even though the problem may not be solved. Often, the student has enough motivation to “work hard” and resolve the problem to keep from continued high stress.

Acute stress characteristics evident in groups or individuals require immediate assistance from school counselors. Reactions to crises are personal and subjective, and while general stress reactions are common in certain age groups, it is important to remember that children and adolescents may behave differently.

Certain theoretically based strategies and counseling models have been effective when dealing with students and families in crisis. No matter what the strategy, school counselors should adhere to some basic treatment principles. The first step is to assess the crisis (type, level, impact, etc.) and the students’ personal resources. Get the facts, and make sure you understand the situation as well as the appropriateness of the students’ reactions. Response should be immediate.

School counselors usually need to be fairly directive in the early stages after a crisis as students are void of coping skills and identifying alternatives. Couple this approach with care to provide a secure, structured and safe relationship. Be concerned and competent, but don’t offer false reassurance. Instead, help the students generate rational hope.

In the early stages after a disaster, pay close attention to students’ feelings. By helping them comprehend and express their feelings, you can help them normalize those feelings. Help students cope with what they are experiencing. If they can’t verbalize feelings, use art therapy, play therapy, sand tray or other expressive therapies to provide opportunities for students to express themselves in alternative ways.

School counselors can help students confront reality and identify intrinsic and extrinsic resources that might enhance their ability to cope. Sustaining relationships with family and community members that might support the student or provide additional services is an important consultative role for school counselors. Establishing some internal school supports such as mentors, PALS, teachers and other key resource people can help students regain coping skills more quickly. Once established, such relationships should be continued for several months.

After students begin to deal with their feelings, then school counselors can help them begin to take action through setting realistic and attainable goals. Encourage students to move from “victim” to “victor,” taking an active role in “getting better.” Celebrate even the smallest of victories with them. Do not support blaming or let the students remain passive. Assist children in expanding their time perspectives.

Students may lose important rituals, traditions or customs during a prolonged crisis, so school counselors can help them establish new rituals. As time progresses, school counselors must be mindful of any painful reminders or anniversaries associated with the crisis and help students navigate through related painful transitions.

Finally, counselors need to follow up periodically and consistently with students who have already weathered the worst of a crisis. Remember that some problems will not show up for months after the crisis. Students who seemed to cope well early on may actually suffer from stress reactions weeks or months after the fact.

Students who have been displaced, either living in a new geographic area or with a new family, might also have to navigate new academic standards or school policies. As a school counselor, you must advocate for such students, consulting with parents, teachers, administrators and other school personnel to provide necessary services to ensure appropriate intervention and future academic success. Similarly, school counselors must be proactive in preparing displaced students for state-mandated tests, monitoring test scores and intervening with poor performers. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) offers excellent guidelines for including displaced/homeless students in state and local accountability systems. Most state education agencies will offer the same type of assistance.
Expressive therapies are effective in treating students suffering from stress reactions. Play therapy aids in initial assessment and helps children communicate concerns and feelings in a developmentally appropriate and non-threatening way as well as promoting healing. Sand tray therapy helps children and adolescents resolve traumas through expression of fantasies, helps them develop a sense of mastery and control, allows for “working through” pent-up feelings, and soothes and nurtures students through tactile/touch sense. Art therapy not only provides valuable assessment data for the counselor but it naturally allows students of all ages to better understand themselves. Through art, children and adolescents are provided the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings they would not necessarily acknowledge openly. Puppetry allows young children to speak through puppets, providing a non-threatening venue. Bibliotherapy encourages free expression of problems and concerns that are frequently hidden. Additionally, bibliotherapy helps students analyze their thoughts and behaviors in relation to individuals they read about as well as providing them with information needed to improve problem-solving skills.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be effective with older children and adolescents in the aftermath of a crisis. A primary counseling goal for cognitive behavioral approaches centers on reframing negative thoughts associated with all facets of the student’s thoughts about experiences within the crisis. Other goals include preventing further suffering and halting maladaptive cognitive, behavioral and affective patterns that perpetuate the child’s problem. Cognitive-behavioral approaches integrate techniques from family therapy, cognitive therapy, short-term psychoanalytically oriented psychology (cathartic processes), homework assignments (journaling, desensitization, relaxation and guided imagery, etc.) in a fairly short-term relationship. Some key cognitive-behavioral treatment strategies include progressive and autogenic relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, learning positive self-statements, biofeedback, systematic desensitization, teaching problem-solving strategies, employing home-based token economies and physical exercise.

Many students may have experienced death or loss of a loved one or witnessed others’ deaths as part of their experience. Activities that help students deal with death include journal writing, art therapy, bibliotherapy, movement and dance activities, music, physical activities and individual counseling that allows for the child or adolescent grieve and develop coping skills. School counselors will need to refer students experiencing severe or lasting symptoms to counseling outside of the school setting.

To ensure students continue with successful coping strategies, school counselors need to follow up in the days, weeks and months following the crisis. Some suggested follow-up activities are:
  • Education: Survivor and family education helps normalize continued reactions, improves coping, enhances self-care, facilitates recognition of significant problems that may appear later, increases knowledge and provides access to a variety of social services.
  • Follow-up screening: Don’t simply screen for current psychopathology and adjustment problems, but also assess risk for future impairment or functioning through use of standardized assessments, interviews, etc.
  • Referral: Appropriate mental health services are a must to ensure long-term mental health in some cases. School counselors must consider stigma, embarrassment, cultural issues/norms that might lead parents and/or students to avoid seeking counseling from referral. Using motivational techniques and family therapy can help in this process.
After Hurricane Katrina, which involved large numbers of displaced students, school counselors and administrators faced numerous challenges. Many children and adolescents from Louisiana ended up in schools out of state. These students, faced with life in a new culture, struggled to find their niche. Several school counselors and administrators, sensing mounting tensions between student groups, took action and provided conflict resolution skills and cultural respect skills through classroom guidance, held schoolwide “unity conferences” and other such proactive measures. In schools where preventative measures weren’t taken, numerous conflicts and fights broke out in the weeks following the disaster.

School counselors must provide all students under their care with proactive, preventative guidance addressing a variety of life circumstances including dealing with crises. A crisis could affect a community overnight, and school counselors should be proactive, preparing students in advance. Additionally, children and adolescents are continuously exposed to traumatic events through the Web, television, radio, newspapers, magazines and overheard adult conversations.

Many suffer from just seeing or hearing about crises around the world. School counselors can use global events as opportunities to set the stage for ongoing questions and concerns students might have about crises. The guidance component of comprehensive school counseling programs offers the ideal venue for proactive measures. Social cognitive training focuses on developing social competence and facilitative coping for all students. Identifying and teaching coping skills, problem-solving strategies, conflict mediation, assertive skills and stress management are all vital in preparing students for a variety of life stressors. Remedial skills such as identification and acknowledgement of feelings, practicing alternative ways of behaving and cognitive restructuring/reframing techniques are invaluable to many students already experiencing a lack of coping skills.

Other proactive preparations school counselors can use with students include:
  • Talking about events/crises
  • Offering comfort to children and adolescents suffering “side effects”
  • Modeling positive response and reaction to crises
  • Listening and helping children find ways to express their thoughts and feelings
  • Reducing media access to children/adolescents
  • Joining a relief effort, and encouraging student involvement
  • Helping students and their families establish a family emergency plan
  • Making sure there is an effective schoolwide crisis management plan in place
Educating Yourself
School counselors play important roles individually and as team members in helping students and schools when crises occur. All too frequently school counselors claim to have little or no training in this area. It is incumbent upon school counselors to take on the personal responsibility to learn more about how to help students before, during and after a crisis. Many local and regional workshops, professional counseling organizations at the state and national level, professional conferences and other opportunities are available to school counselors. Counselor educators need to assess their programs, making sure all school counselors receive education and training in crisis intervention.

Keeping up with current research and resources is a critical readiness component. Stay abreast of local community services available as well as state and national resources. Make sure you have developed collaborative relationships with other professionals in your area.

School counselors should take leadership roles in making sure their school and/or district has a detailed crisis response plan in place. It may be necessary to educate school administrators about the importance of a crisis response plan or retooling an outdated one. Don’t let a crisis catch you and your school unprepared. Start planning for the unthinkable today.

Gail Roaten, Ph.D., LPC, is an assistant professor at Texas State University. She can be reached at gr17@txstate.edu.

Children’s Reaction to Crisis
Bewilderment – don’t understand what is happening or what to do
Danger – sense of impending doom, convinced they’ll be hurt physically or psychologically
Confusion – difficulty in reasoning, diminished responsiveness including “psychic numbing” or “emotional anesthesia”
Impasse – feel “stuck” and are unable to generate alternative coping strategies
Desperation – willing to try anything to solve problem even if maladaptive or irrational
Withdrawal and internal reactions – spontaneity lost, sluggish and quiet, wanting to be alone
Helplessness – looking for someone to rescue them
Feelings of responsibility – somehow feel that they are at fault
Fear of recurrence of event – re-live trauma or negative feelings
Re-telling – re-tell or re-play the event or specific experiences
Sleep problems – cannot sleep or sleep too much, nightmares, fears of being alone
Anxiety – pervasive fears but can’t put feelings into words, concern for personal safety
Negative behaviors – aggressive, restless, inattentive and preoccupied (intrusive thoughts), disruptive, disobedient
Somatic complaints – headaches, stomachaches, flu-like symptoms
Regression – bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, etc.
Extreme concern – for other victims and families
Failing or declining grades and increased absences, reluctance to go to school, separation anxiety

Teens’ Reactions to Crisis
Stress reactions common to adolescents include many of those listed for children as well as:
Self-consciousness about fear – sense of vulnerability, fear of being labeled abnormal or different
Detachment and apathy
Shame and guilt – internalize problem, somehow feel responsible or ashamed for event
Reactions to reminders – much like post-traumatic stress disorder
Acting-out behaviors – due to lack of healthy coping skills teens often use alcohol and/or drugs, sexual encounters/experimentation
Accident-prone – carelessness, often due to intrusive thoughts or apathy
Abrupt shift in interpersonal relationships – pull away from parents or family, change in friends
Radical attitude changes – hostile, aggressive, angry behaviors; emotional mood swings
Premature entry into adulthood – taking on adult role; leaving home, getting married, etc.
Anger at God – questioning basic values, questions such as “Why me?” or “Why?”