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date: 11 December 2019

School Crisis Prevention and Intervention

Summary and Keywords

A school crisis unexpectedly disrupts the school, causes emotional and physical distress, and requires extraordinary decisions and resources to restore stability. During a crisis, teachers and administrators are the first decision-makers. Yet, their training may not prepare them for this responsibility. The first school crisis framework published in educational psychology appeared in 1994, following a U.S. symposium of school psychologists to discuss a recent school massacre. In addition, cross-country communications forums and seminars recognized cultural considerations while fostering the exchange of school crisis research findings and their implications for practice. These efforts have led educational psychologists worldwide to adopt a temporal framework of recommended practices to guide educators’ decisions before, during, and after crises.

Pre-crisis work includes assessment, prevention, planning, and training. Pre-crisis planning calls on expertise in multidisciplinary collaboration with other emergency responders and risk assessments that require one to choose measures and interpret data. Once a school staff identifies impending risks, educational psychologists collaborate with responder agencies to communicate some of this information. Planning for a crisis includes procedures for young children, as well as those with special needs, which calls on the psychologist to consider how best to assess their needs and accommodate these groups. Practices and drills call for behavioral observation skills and an understanding of stress reactions that impede compliance with directives. Here, the educational psychologist contributes technical expertise in behavioral observations and performance assessment.

The crisis response phase thrusts educators into rapid collaborations with emergency responders to prevent casualties and reduce exposure to trauma. During a crisis, psychologists work alongside others to safeguard, reassure, and empower those affected, taking into account the assistance that older students may offer.

Post-crisis efforts seek to restore psychological safety through the restoration of social supports, then address acute mental health needs. Educational psychologists impart clinical expertise to restore social supports, arrange for psychological first aid, minimize continued exposure, and triage mental health needs. Academic recovery requires decisions about how and when to resume instruction. A return to schooling, ongoing supports for victims and responders, and evaluations to improve school crisis responses comprise the final goals. Some view this post-crisis mental health work as the psychologist’s primary contribution; however, the aforementioned examples reveal a greater agenda of opportunities during all school crisis phases.

Keywords: school crisis, school safety, school violence, school crisis response, school crisis prevention, school violence prevention


The term school crisis evokes for many the frightening images of adolescents, their hands raised high, evacuating the chaotic scene of a school shooting. Others picture playgrounds covered in rubble, flooded, or decimated by fire. These jarring images collide with our notions of schools as sanctuaries of learning and play for the young. In fact, this dissonance is echoed in contemporary conceptualizations of school crisis, which highlight an unpredictable disruption, emotional and physical distress, and the unexpected need for resources (Nickerson & Brock, 2011). Viewed from an educational psychology perspective, a school crisis is an unexpected event that (a) causes members of the school community to experience shock, helplessness, and/or fear; (b) requires extraordinary aid to restore psychological stability and well-being; and (c) can disrupt learning and other school experience over extended periods (Akhter et al., 2015; Kerr & King, 2018; Laor, Wolmer, Spirman, & Wiener, 2003).

Above all, school crises demand difficult decisions. In fact, the word crisis has its origins in the Greek term krisis, meaning “decision” (see Mair, 2009). Once again, one observes dissonance. Educators are the first to make decisions in a school crisis, yet their training and experiences hardly prepare them for this responsibility. After all, crisis expertise draws from highly specialized disciplines, including public health, urban planning, psychiatry, multiple branches of psychology, communications, disaster and emergency response, nursing, and law enforcement. To succeed in this work, one must study these fields not only to learn basic terminology but also to grasp fundamental principles and their underlying conceptual frameworks. Moreover, crisis expertise accrues through firsthand experience. Yet, school crises are rare, so even veteran educators lack the experience common to emergency responders. As a result, “it is not surprising that crisis intervention work often falls squarely on the shoulders of the school psychologist” (Bolnik & Brock, 2005, p. 117).

Although not an exhaustive examination, this article offers an overview of major ideas and challenges in school crisis prevention and intervention. For brevity, school personnel may appear simply as school, and the terms educational psychologist and school psychologist are used interchangeably. We begin with a brief history.

School Crisis: The Emergence of a Framework

Portrayals of school crisis appeared first in the professional literature as retrospective narrative accounts. Notable examples included Lacey’s (1972) brief commentary on the Aberfan mining disaster, which killed 116 students and 5 teachers, and Terr’s (1979) lengthy account of the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping. Written by clinicians, both articles focused on children’s reactions, paving the way for the subsequent inclusion of children in conceptualizations of trauma and its deleterious effects.

The first school crisis framework published in educational psychology appeared in 1994, following a U.S. symposium of school psychologists to discuss a recent school massacre. Scott Poland (symposium chair) wrote a paper in which he chronicled U.S. school attacks and cited examples of newly forming school crisis teams and their rudimentary crisis plans, many of which had arisen in response to crises such as suicide (see Brent et al., 1989). Poland then issued a charge to the field to prepare more systematically for school crises (Knox & Roberts, 2005). Elsewhere, school crisis team planning began in Turkey following two devastating 1999 earthquakes (Dölek & Hande Sart, 2007) and in Germany following the 2002 Erfut school massacre (Dunkel, 2007).

Since that time, leading educational psychologists have authored crisis frameworks (Jimerson, Brock, & Pletcher, 2005; Rees & Seaton, 2011) and developed extensive training to support school crisis preparedness. For example, the European School Psychology Center for Training prioritizes crisis training. With similar goals, the International Crisis Response Network of the International School Psychology Association (ISPA) offers cross-country communications forums and seminars that recognize cultural considerations while fostering the exchange of school crisis research findings and their implications for practice (Hatzichristiou, Issari, Lykitsakou, Lampropoulou, & Dimitropoulou, 2011; Jimerson et al., 2002).

In 2009, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) published the PREPaRE curriculum to enable school personnel to prevent and respond to school emergencies (Brock et al., 2009). Its developers characterize it as “the only comprehensive, internationally disseminated training curriculum” based on the international experiences and expertise of school psychologists (Brock et al., 2016, p. 2). The model’s acronym refers to the primary tasks of school crisis preparedness and response: prevent, reaffirm safety, evaluate trauma risk, provide support and respond to needs, and examine the crisis response (Brock et al., 2016). This framework parallels the “disaster life cycle” model and its eight components cited by Fothergill (2017): “Risk Perception/Understanding of Hazards, Preparedness, Warning Communication and Response, Physical Impacts, Psychological Impacts, Emergency Response, Recovery, and Reconstruction/Risk Reduction” (p. 5). Today, school crisis models such as PREPaRE reflect a common temporal framework to facilitate interdisciplinary communications and collaborations worldwide (Brock & Jimerson, 2017; Jimerson, Brock, & Pletcher, 2005). These temporal phases are pre-crisis, during the crisis, and post-crisis. Organized according to these crisis phases, this article discusses school crisis prevention and intervention principles, aims, decisions, and their underlying research.

Pre-Crisis Risk Assessment

There are three distinct issues: 1) knowledge on hazard and risk; 2) perceived risk at individual, family and community level (which can be done through participatory approach in different levels); and 3) willingness to take action to reduce risk which can be done through developing a culture of . . . preparedness.

(Shaw, Shiwaku Hirohide Kobayashi, & Kobayashi, 2004, pp. 40–41)

Shaw et al.’s observations aptly capture the aims of prevention, a phase in which schools assess risks to mobilize crisis prevention efforts. Knowledge of hazard and risk comes from national and local governmental agencies whose missions include public health, disaster response, and law enforcement. These reports offer data on anticipated health and weather hazards, as well as violence data to allow for comparative analysis. Using these data, educators anticipate situations for which they need prevention and preparedness plans. In turn, decisions take place about sharing the anticipated risks with students, families, and community members, to mobilize their help. For example, a school might distribute notifications regarding a disease outbreak, with guidelines for prevention, symptom recognition, and treatment. Or the school might alert the community to a rise in youth suicide, sharing warning signs and recommending that concerned individuals contact local crisis lines.

However, these steps may be insufficient, leading educators to seek additional school-based data. School-based risk assessments reflect socioecological research (in both violence and disasters) suggesting that local school community perceptions strongly influence a school’s crisis prevention and intervention (Benbenishty & Astor, 2005; Capp et al., 2017). As Capp et al. concluded, “schools are dynamic organizations that change constantly . . . Ongoing collection and sharing of data creates a ‘whole school’ approach to understanding and addressing a problem” (p. 10). To illustrate this principle, let us consider the specific case of school violence and three primary measures: (a) school climate surveys, (b) mapping school spaces and times, and (c) threat assessment.

School climate refers to a range of school conditions as perceived by staff, students, and families; typically, these perceptions are captured through surveys. Measures of school climate, although contested because of definitional and measurement issues, can reveal perceptions of physical safety, emotional safety, and order and discipline (Wang & Degol, 2016). One of these perceptions is the general belief that an adult will respond appropriately if a student reports a suspicious conversation, social media post, or action. This perception is critical to violence prevention efforts, because research conducted with student “bystanders” in attacks and averted attacks showed that bystanders’ decisions to come forward were influenced by their belief that an adult would take preventive action (Pollack, Modzeleski, & Rooney, 2008).

While surveys can gauge school safety perceptions, they do not uncover the specific times and spaces that staff and students deem dangerous. In response to research showing that violence is most likely to occur during times and in campus spaces that are “unowned” (i.e., those perceived as minimally supervised), Astor, Benbenishty, and Meyer (2004) designed a mapping process that engages school staff and students who jointly examine floor plans, discuss and record the unowned times and places in their school, and identify prevention strategies such as active supervision.

The third measure, threat assessment, has its roots in studies conducted by enforcement agencies analyzing the perpetrators after targeted school attacks. Out of these studies emerged guidelines for not only predicting violence but also violence prevention. School-based threat assessment relies on a multidisciplinary process. This approach universally calls on psychological assessment expertise, thereby creating a major opportunity for the educational psychologist’s involvement (Modzeleski & Randazzo, 2018). Besides violence, other safety evaluations identify the building’s capacity to withstand a natural or manmade disaster (Shaw et al., 2004).

Pre-Crisis Planning and Training

The ultimate goal of crisis preparation is to mitigate harm through planning, training, and practice. Because these are time-consuming and unfamiliar tasks, educators may relegate crisis preparation to the educational psychologist. However, this assignment contradicts expert consensus that crisis planning must involve staff, students, and families, as well as policymakers, government officials, and emergency responders (Allen, Ashbaker, & Stott, 2003; Kerr & King, 2018; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2017). Educational psychologists have cited “the importance of joint working; teamwork, joint pre-planning, and multi-agency interaction. Further, many . . . stressed the perceived danger of lone working” (Rees & Seaton, 2011, p. 88).

School Crisis Plans

To facilitate this complex work, planning teams may now turn to readily available templates and planning tools that walk the planners through the process (e.g., PREPaRE; UNISDR Asia and the Pacific Guidance Notes; United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, 2010; and the U.S. federal guide). While these formats differ, the emergency operations plan (EOP) typically includes policies authorizing the plan and endorsing interagency collaborations, as well as school-level information that responders access rapidly during and after a crisis. For example, this rapid response information includes detailed floor plans showing entrances, exits, technology, utilities, and emergency supplies; a crisis response organization chart, as well as complete staff contact information; a crisis communications plan, often with templates for digital and other formats; and student lists and locations, as well as information on their transportation routes and emergency caregiver contacts. Supplementing the EOP are annexes, the name given to procedures that apply across multiple types of crisis. Annexes typically include lockdown, evacuation, shelter-in-place, family reunification, and mental health protocols (Brock et al., 2016; Doyle, 2013; Kerr & King, 2018). In addition to the aforementioned core content, the EOP must include a step-by-step protocol for each potential crisis identified through the assessment process. Each protocol clearly and concisely communicates this information:

  • identification of the crisis event to differentiate one protocol from another;

  • directives to the first person(s) aware of the crisis;

  • mass communication to mobilize others;

  • step-by-step protocols for each role group in the situation; and

  • a process for recording the actions taken and by whom.

School crisis plans may benefit from recommendations in the literature. For example, echoing a sociocultural perspective, Annandale, Heath, Dean, Kemple, and Takino (2011) called for more cultural sensitivity in school crisis plans after their team reviewed plans and identified deficiencies. This step toward engaging the community is critical to effective crisis planning and response, because research has shown that “if trust within the school community is already low, then it cannot be used as a resource to mobilise community adherence . . . and in fact may be a barrier to action (Braunack-Mayer, Tooher, Collins, Street, & Marshall, 2013, p. 14).

Related to community involvement in planning is the question of whether to involve the public during a crisis. Some researchers challenge traditional crisis planning that excludes the public’s involvement, This research raises questions about the inclusion of community members who arrive on the scene. Should members of the community be allowed on school campuses during a crisis? If so, what are appropriate roles and safeguards for them, and do those roles involve contact with children?

Research also highlights the need to consider children with special needs (e.g., those with disabilities and the very young) in the plan, because they may not be able to follow typical crisis directives (Boon, Pagliano, Brown, & Tsey, 2012; Clarke, Embury, Jones, & Yssel, 2014; Peek & Stough, 2010). In the case of a school attack, for example, the challenge is to teach young children to remain quiet and follow directions (Dickson & Vargo, 2017).

In summary, crisis planning is complex. Considerable research from many fields has led to recommendations in the PREPaRE curriculum and in government agency plans worldwide (e.g., Japan’s crisis plan created under the auspices of ISPA).

School Crisis Training

Once the plan is drafted, training should follow. Training should pursue a sequence that includes: reviewing and discussing the plan, participating in online or table-top exercises (e.g., What If Wednesday) that require participants to use the plan with hypothetical scenarios, drills (which may involve students and outside responders) and simulations. Simulation training, considered a best practice among military personnel, physicians, nurses, and emergency responders, offers realistic practice during which leaders detect problems in responding.

We now turn to research related to school crisis training. In a large study of school personnel, researchers found that “reading the school’s crisis plan, attending a training each year, and years experience working in the field, when combined, are all significantly predictive of staff members’ ratings of crisis preparedness” (Olinger Steeves, Metallo, Byrd, Erickson, & Gresham, 2017, p. 577). Werner’s (2015) study of school social workers yielded comparable guidance, as did Sela-Shayovitz’s (2009) study with teachers learning violence preparedness. As an example, The NASP PREPaRE workshops, which are highly interactive, have shown positive outcomes in participant satisfaction, attitudes, and knowledge (Nickerson et al., 2014).

Children, too, may learn best when they are actively engaged in crisis preparation. Considerable research has supported education programs that teach students about disasters and prepare them for pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis conditions (Finnis, Johnston, Ronan, & White, 2010; King & Tarrant, 2013). In examining the components of a disaster preparedness program, Shaw et al. (2004) found that “more active ways of disaster education through conversation, experiencing, and visual aids are found to be more effective” (p. 39).

Simulations reflect research showing that individuals’ self-efficacy improves with repeated practice; in turn, heightened self-efficacy has been positively linked to compliance with crisis directives (Avery & Park, 2016; Bergstrand, Mayer, Brumback, & Zhang, 2015; Hamiel, Wolmer, Spirman, & Laor, 2013). Moreover, “in a study of resilience among vulnerable populations . . . it was found that individuals with higher self-efficacy were likely to be more resilient in the face of disasters” (Smith, 2017, p. 30). However, in the case of school violence, some cautions apply. First, research has yet to demonstrate the efficacy of armed assailant simulations in schools (Poland & Conte, 2017). Second, some experts warn of potentially deleterious effects on participants, suggesting safeguards,. When conducting a simulation or other training, schools must decide how to organize the event to safeguard adult and child participants’ psychological safety. Detailed guidance for armed intruder drills appears in a 2014 publication co-authored by the NASP.

Response During the Crisis

During the crisis event, school leaders race to get help, ensure physical safety, communicate safety information, locate staff and students, and ultimately reunite families. Rapid decisions occur under highly stressful and unfamiliar conditions. The PREPaRE model aptly calls this phase “reaffirming physical health and safety,” which implies not only that individuals are safe but also that they perceive themselves to be safe (Brock et al., 2016). Mental health interventions are delayed until physical safety and basic needs are restored; meanwhile, priorities and duties depend on one’s location, the nature of the crisis, and the reactions of others. Here we offer examples.

Evacuating children (or concealing them, if safer) is a priority, because continued exposure to danger is a predictor of longer-term physical and psychological outcomes (Udwin, Boyle, Yule, Bolton, & O’Ryan, 2000). Therefore, one’s duty may be to refocus and calm students so they can follow safety directives such as moving to an off-site location or hiding silently in a classroom. For example, adolescents may refuse to follow evacuation orders from their teachers due to fears that a sniper awaits them outside.

In large-scale crises, one’s duty may be to enlist older students to help. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, Vietnamese children translated emergency alerts for non-English speaking community members (Mitchell, Haynes, Hall, Choong, & Oven, 2008). In another example, young Norwegian victims of the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami assisted in first aid (Jensen, Ellestad, & Dyb, 2013).

Another duty is safe family reunification, a priority that calls on educational psychologists to use their clinical skills as they follow the established protocol (see Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2013). Chrisman and Dougherty (2014) noted that “separation can be more stressful to children than the traumatic event itself” (p. 268). When conditions make rapid reunification impossible, the focus may need to shift to empowering students to support one another until they can be reunited with their families. Acknowledging reactions, offering accurate (and age-appropriate) information, and pledging to reunify families as soon as possible constitute actions school personnel may undertake. In the case of school violence, the reunification may be further delayed because of security measures (e.g., interviewing witnesses), thereby heightening emotions for adults and their children. While safeguarding or escorting children awaiting reunification, minimizing students’ exposure to frightening visual images such as medical interventions or removal of bodies may mitigate traumatization (Brock et al., 2016; Udwin et al., 2000).

Once the immediate threat is over, the work shifts to alleviate physical, psychological, and educational needs through reestablishing social supports. Here, educational psychologists also evaluate the needs of those who require mental health support for ongoing distress.

Post-Crisis Recovery

Many decisions arise in the recovery phase, and these decisions are both operational (e.g., how, when, and where to reopen school or choosing memorials) and psychological (e.g., offering psychological first aid, limiting exposure, and identifying those who require more intensive intervention). Often taking the lead in the latter decisions, educational psychologists first arrange psychological first aid (PFA) and the restoration of social supports and safeguards, then evaluate and find help for those at risk for long-term trauma reactions.

Psychological First Aid

PFA, widely acknowledged as the leading evidence-informed approach for supporting crisis survivors (Schruba et al., 2018), seeks to

  • establish a positive connection with students and staff members in a nonintrusive, compassionate manner;

  • enhance immediate and ongoing safety and provide physical and emotional comfort;

  • calm and orient emotionally overwhelmed or distraught students and staff;

  • help students and staff members identify their immediate needs and concerns;

  • offer practical assistance and information to help students and staff members address their immediate needs and concerns;

  • connect students and staff members as soon as possible to social support networks, including family members, friends, coaches, and other school or community groups;

  • empower students, staff, and families to take an active role in their recovery by acknowledging their coping efforts and strengths and supporting adaptive coping; and

  • make clear . . . availability and (when appropriate) link the student and staff to other relevant school or community resources such as school counseling services, peer support programs, afterschool activities, tutoring, primary care physicians, local recovery systems, mental health services, employee assistance programs, public-sector services, and other relief organizations, whose aims are “to reduce the initial distress caused by emergencies, and to foster short- and long-term adaptive functioning and coping.” (Brymer et al., 2012, p. 5)

The PFA-Schools version offers several benefits. First, PFA does not require providers to possess prior mental health training, thereby freeing the educational psychologist to pursue more specialized duties (Brymer et al., 2012; Wolmer, Laor, Dedeoglu, Siev, & Yazgan, 2005). Second, the model is “respectful of and consistent with the school administration of the academic setting, school culture, and the behavior (code of conduct) of students” (Brymer et al., 2012, p. 3). Third, the PFA-Schools model addresses multiple developmental stages in a culturally sensitive approach, with handouts in multiple languages. Fourth, the PFA mobile app facilitates work in multiple settings.

Limiting Exposure to Trauma

Children’s exposure to trauma occurs primarily in three ways, as delineated by Hoven et al. (2005). Direct exposure consists of experiences with the event itself, while family exposure occurs when family members have been affected, as either victims or responders. Media exposure refers to depictions of the traumatic event through the digital and print media.

Limiting exposure becomes a duty shared by educators, mental health teams, and families, for two reasons. First, studies have shown the harmful effects of even indirect exposure on children and adolescents, especially in the case of mass trauma caused by terrorism or other violence (Comer, DeSerisy, & Greif Green, 2016; Holmes, Creswell, & O’Connor, 2007; Pfefferbaum et al., 2018; Suomalainen, Haravuori, Berg, Kiviruusu, & Marttunen, 2011; Warria, 2016). Second, research links media exposure to copycat acts of violence (Gould & Olivares, 2017; Kissner, 2016). In response to these concerns, experts have compiled guidelines for reporting on mass shootings and suicide.

Restoring Social Supports

Trauma research emphasizes the vital role of reconnections with others (Suomalainen et al., 2011). In fact, “provision of social supports is arguably the most powerful of the mental health crisis interventions” (Brock et al., 2016, p. 203). Social support in the school crisis context refers to children’s perception that others (especially their families) care for and value them (Cobb, 1976); family reunification alone suffices to promote many students’ recovery (Brock et al., 2016). In addition to receiving support, children can also extend social support to others (Kerr, Fried, Price, Cornick, & Dugan, 2017). As Fothergill (2017) observed:

They are able to empathize with their peers, provide comfort to their younger siblings, and be a listening ear to other children and youth. They also provide emotional support to adults, as noted by parents whose children gave them extra hugs, sang to them, and reassured them.

(Fothergill & Peek, 2015, p. 16)

Similarly, Chrisman and Dougherty (2014) cited “valued social role[s], such as a job or volunteering” (p. 265) as contributing to children’s recovery. Examples of classroom activities include writing letters to victims’ families and emergency responders (Kerr et al., 2017), collecting donations, and taking on advocacy roles. These activities appear to support children’s self-efficacy, although few studies guide decisions about who benefits from which activities and why. In fact, Anderson (2005) determined that such programs “cry out for systematic evaluation by disaster researchers” (p. 167).

In addition to promoting students’ recovery through activities that reaffirm their perceptions of safety and give them constructive roles to fulfill, the return to school allows trusted teachers to help them identify their needs (Brock et al., 2016; Green et al., 2015; Wong, 2008). We turn now to the task of identifying mental health supports.

Addressing Mental Health Needs

While educators and families can nurture most students through the recovery process, some students will present with long-term mental health needs, prompting the procurement of appropriate interventions at school or in the community. For example, youth who survived the Utøya, Norway, youth camp sniper attack, “perceived that their academic performance had worsened, with more than one in four reporting impaired school wellbeing. Furthermore, they declared substantial needs for school support” (Stene, Schultz, & Dyb, 2019, p. 324).

Of special concern are students who were closest to the crisis, were injured or witnessed others suffering, and/or were exposed for long periods (Brock et al., 2016). In addition, those with prior mental health concerns or disabilities may be vulnerable (Boon et al., 2012). Taken together, these risk factors undermine an individual’s self-efficacy, perception of safety, and ability to reconnect with others (see Smyth, 2013; Wilson, Pence, & Conradi, 2013). Therefore, educational psychologists give first priority to these individuals. To aid them in their work, external mental health triage support personnel may be summoned.

Changes in motivation to learn, cognition, memory, and attention typically follow a traumatic experience. Therefore, as Brock et al. (2016) noted, “returning students to learning too quickly without evaluating their emotional needs would delay academic recovery” (p. 159). Following a crisis, students may require temporary adjustments in academic expectations such as performance on exams (Kerr & King, 2018). Decisions regarding the return to school depend not only on students’ reactions but also on the capacity of adults to offer instruction.

Supporting the Responders

Crisis responding is risky for those taking care of others. Experts refer to this risk as compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, and secondary traumatic stress. (For a review of these concepts, see Gottfried & Bride, 2018.) Put simply: “We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer” (Ochberg, n.d., p. 1)

Compounding the aforementioned secondary traumatic stress, a crisis often forces school staff to work in inadequate workspaces, alongside unfamiliar personnel, separated from their close colleagues (Kerr & King, 2018). Therefore, school psychologists have identified strategies to mitigate the harmful effects of crisis responding. The NASP (2017) identified three distinct areas: (a) physical self-care, (b) emotional health, and (c) social care and connection, outlining these in its guide for crisis teams.

Teachers also need to restore their own sense of safety and social support systems, a requirement that sometimes goes unnoticed both in practice and in the literature (Alvarez, 2010; Cole, Hayes, Jones, & Shah, 2013; Türküm, 2011). For example, Comer and Kendall (2007) noted that research has yet to analyze the link between documented teacher stress reactions and students’ classroom functioning. In summary, “professional role containment and enhancement are essential. . . . Professionals should be viewed more as athletes running marathons rather than short-distance races. Awareness of each worker’s strengths, vulnerabilities, and individual losses helps regulate their exposure to prevent burnout” (Laor et al., 2003, p. 354).

Evaluating the Crisis Response

Because crisis prevention benefits from experiential learning, law enforcement officials and emergency responders consider post-crisis evaluations routine. Yet, educators find themselves exhausted after a major response and may shun meetings that detract from their normal work (Bolnick & Brock, 2005). Unfortunately, experts have no blueprint for how best to conduct such an evaluation (Crowe, Allen, Scott, Harms, & Yoerger, 2017).

Implications for Educational Psychologists

Pre-crisis planning calls on expertise in multidisciplinary collaboration with other emergency responders and risk assessments that require one to choose measures and interpret data. For example, when assessing perceptions of risk and safety, educational psychologists may consult reviews of measures and bring psychometric expertise to the choice of survey as well as its interpretation, while recognizing cautions regarding definitions and item wording (see Berkowitz et al., 2017). Once a school staff identifies impending risks, educational psychologists collaborate with responder agencies to communicate some of this information, acknowledging that “risk perception and risk communication are very much related to an individual’s social, cultural, economic and personal background” (Shaw et al., 2004, p. 41).

Planning for a crisis includes procedures for young children, as well as those with special needs, which calls on the psychologist to consider how best to assess their needs and accommodate these groups. Practices and drills call for behavioral observation skills and an understanding of stress reactions that impede compliance with directives. Are the staff learning their duties in a crisis? Can they enact their training under extreme stress? Will the parent-child reunification plan be efficient and safe? How long did it take for all students to reach the off-site shelter? Here, the educational psychologist contributes technical expertise in behavioral observations and performance assessment.

During a crisis, psychologists work alongside others to safeguard, reassure, and empower those affected, taking into account the assistance that older students may offer. Lastly, after the threat has ended, psychologists impart clinical expertise to restore social supports, arrange for psychological first aid, minimize continued exposure, and triage mental health needs. Academic recovery requires decisions about how and when to resume instruction, because lost classroom time compounds the disruptions to students’ normal lives and can have enduring consequences (Akhter et al., 2015). Some view this post-crisis mental health work as the psychologist’s primary contribution; however, the aforementioned examples reveal a greater agenda of opportunities during all school crisis phases.


Disasters, violence, terrorism, and epidemics worldwide summon individuals from many disciplines to join one another in preventing and responding to school crises, while honoring the perspectives of local communities. Faced with complex decisions before, during, and after a crisis, schools find guidance in frameworks that define planning and intervention protocols, training curricula, and victim supports. Nevertheless, school crisis responders face a dissonance; certitude in protecting schools demands answers, but many ambiguities remain.

First, the assessment of risk and adoption of subsequent prevention strategies must involve the school and local community, rendering generic recommendations fallible. Moreover, research must take place across many diverse settings and cultures and employ better perception measures before many schools’ questions can be answered.

Second, disaster preparedness and the health-related fields have long studied risk communications, but school-based risk communication research remains limited. As climates change and perpetrators develop more sophisticated and covert tactics, schools will need new communications to mobilize frightened school communities.

Third, evaluation and improvement based on experiences gained through simulated and actual incidents is a hallmark of effective practice. However, researchers have not concentrated specifically on the content of school emergency plans (see Aspiranti, Pelchar, McCLeary, Bain, & Foster, 2011). Furthermore, the interplay between planning, practice, and safety has yet to be fully articulated. What protocol, followed by what training and practice, mitigates harm most effectively under what conditions? Contributing to our indecision, school crisis response evaluations may be haphazard, due to competing time demands and little empirically based guidance on how best to conduct such reviews.

Lastly, lingering incertitude arises from the very nature of school crisis. The unpredictability of crises—especially those caused by war, violence, or terrorism—may render some research and data collection approaches altogether impossible. Forced to retreat during the crisis, researchers return later to rely on retrospective accounts of responders, victims, and witnesses. Yet, many of these respondents experience memory loss and cognitive impairment, which may compromise data gathering.

In his historic 1994 charge to the field, Poland reflected on the unanswered questions of school crisis prevention and intervention and then called on “school psychologists [to] step forward to provide leadership in this important area as our training provides us with the perspective to understand all . . . levels of crisis intervention” (p. 188). What remains certain is this: within each crisis phase and the research that lies ahead, educational psychologists will make noteworthy and lasting contributions.


The author thanks Sarah E. Dugan for her assistance in preparing this article.

Further Reading

Gottfried, R., & Bride, B. (2018, May 24). Trauma-secondary, vicarious, compassion fatigue. In C. Franklin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of social work. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Jimerson, S. R., Oakland, T. D., Farrell, P. T., & Farrell, P. T. (Eds.). (2007). The handbook of international school psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Lai, B. S., Esnard, A. M., Lowe, S. R., & Peek, L. (2016). Schools and disasters: Safety and mental health assessment and interventions for children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 18(12), 109.Find this resource:

Mutch, C. (2015). The role of schools in disaster settings: Learning from the 2010–2011 New Zealand earthquakes. International Journal of Educational Development, 41, 283–291.Find this resource:

Shiwaku, K., Sakurai, A., & Shaw, R. (Eds.). (2016). Disaster resilience of education systems: Experiences from Japan. New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

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