Helping to manage fear and anxiety
The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida rocked the country and launched calls for stricter gun laws and better security measures in the nation’s schools.
While such events are rare, all schools experience their share of crises on a smaller scale that challenge students’ well-being.
To address a spectrum of situations, schools should implement a comprehensive plan that engages students, teachers and parents, and creates an environment of trust in partnership with community agencies.
Arlene Silva, Ph.D, NCSP, chair in the school psychology department at William James College, emphasized that proactive measures are the best practice.
“Number one is preparation,” she said, citing the importance of a mental health crisis team that understands how to triage needs and knows the proper protocols to ensure everyone involved gets through a crisis better.
One of the most popular models used in schools is PRePARE, according to Silva. The model involves preparation and prevention; reaffirmation; evaluation of psychological trauma and risk; interventions; response; and response evaluation.
In the aftermath of a serious traumatic event, such as the Parkland school shooting, classroom discussion is very helpful, said Silva.
“It’s almost impossible to go back to normal after what happened. Peers and teachers can provide support for each other. It’s a much better way to cope,” Silva said.
She recommends being factual and honest with high school students.
For younger students, Silva suggests offering reassurance but keeping information simple.
“You need to do what’s developmentally appropriate,” she noted.
Boston Arts Academy adopted a comprehensive prevention/intervention model that promotes student safety and creates an environment of trust among staff and students, according to Charmain Jackman, Ph.D, the school’s clinical psychologist.
A nine-member team that includes three social workers, a nurse, clinical interns, other health educators and public agencies utilizes a multi-tiered model that builds trust and a sense of well-being, destigmatizes mental health issues, and provides support for students.
“We all have different roles that support the students,” Jackman said. “We use strategies to early identify students with social and emotional concerns.”
Jackman said they also use the SEL model, which addresses five areas of social/emotional learning: self-awareness; self-management/regulation; responsible decision-making; social awareness; and relationship skills.
“All of these skills help students cope with different situations,” she said. “We also use circle practice to debrief or talk about situations in the community.”
Furthermore, a depression/anxiety module helps students understand the difference between a bad day and clinical depression, Jackman said.
She emphasized the importance of having a culturally competent program. “It should support all students regardless of ability, sexual orientation or ethnicity. There should be no exclusions,” she said.
In the wake of tragedies, such as the Parkland shooting, it’s important to have strong relationships between students and adults in the school, with parents and with community partners, Jackman said.
“You need to create a sense of safety and trust. Students have to know they have someone to talk to when they need it.”
Liana Shelby, Psy.D, is co-chair of the Massachusetts Psychological Association’s (MPA) child/adolescent committee and a clinician at the Longwood Community Mental Health Center.
During her high school years, she participated in a peer-helping program that helped reduce stigma surrounding mental health.
“[Students] learned psychological skills, active listening and how to ask questions. Student involvement was a critical piece,” she said.
Today’s social climate demands diligence. “If a student sees something, they should say something. If they have concerns, they should bring them up to teachers, parents or the administration. Don’t ignore potential problems,” Shelby said.
She added that students can also reach out to those who might be isolated or struggling.
Kathryn Robbins, Ph.D, reported that there are many layers of intervention and protection in the schools.
The board member and PR chair, New Hampshire Psychological Association (NHPA) and NH Coordinator, Public Education Campaign of American Psychological Association (APA), cited several programs that are part of this layering.
These programs include, Mental Health First Aid, the Campaign to Change Direction and the U.S. Department of Education’s Listen Protect Connect – Psychological First Aid for Teachers and Schools.
Partnerships with local professionals, community mental health agencies and other public organizations can also help expand “circles of intervention,” according to Robbins.
“Connections are important. By leveraging connections, you widen the network to include different participants in the care of the student,” she said.
Robbins added that schools need to lay the groundwork and cultivate these partnerships before a crisis situation arises so they can be accessed more readily.
Bruce Ecker, Ph.D, director, Concentration on Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience at William James College, cited three levels of proactive strategies.
On a basic level, clinicians should validate fears expressed by children and adolescents and help them differentiate reality from exaggeration.
They should use well-supported techniques, often cognitive-behavioral, to manage anxiety.
Ecker added, “Psychologists should meet with parents and other caregivers to discuss with them how to calm their children – through accepting the kids’ thoughts and feelings and reassuring that all possible will be done to keep them safe.”
Students, on a school-wide level need to know they can tell adults their feelings and perspectives, both on an individual basis and in class discussions, Ecker noted.
He said that psychologists must work with school staff on emphasizing those points to students consistently and letting them know their feelings are valued.
“Secondly, the school climate should be such that students feel they have a voice and can contribute to how they will be kept safe,” Ecker said.
He noted that students in middle and high school should be involved in decision-making committees on school safety. The results of those talks should be shared with elementary school kids.
At all levels, parents should be welcomed to participate in the process – to be involved in decisions and then to be informed about what steps have been taken, Ecker said.
“At the broadest level, children and adolescents should be encouraged to participate in civil and political action so that we, as a society, will hear their opinions on what they need,” he said.
Such actions help children and adults manage fears and feel empowered,” Ecker added.