Every day, leaders working in and with school systems and communities navigate unpredictable events. These events are called “crises” when they exceed a threshold of harm.
Crises are moments, events, or experiences that call our assumptions into question. When they occur, crises surface the unexplored and the undiscussed: everything comes out during a crisis.
Our project’s aim is to be collaborative and constructivist—we hope that by the end of this project, we as a nation will have a more rich, complex, and resourced understanding of school crisis that 1) includes recovery and renewal and 2) is steered by educators, students, and community members.
That said, we start with the following frame of school crisis, recovery and renewal, and know that it will grow, expand and deepen with your partnership, voices, and experiences.
Framing the Conversation:
The 4 Rs of School Mental Health Crises
The framework we use to launch this project is adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s (NCTSN) The 3R’s of School Crises and Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery. We add a fourth “R”: renewal. “Renewal” is the term we use to identify the component of school mental health crisis that is often the most instrumental and least developed: this phase includes healing, meaning-making, and new navigation of school identity after an overwhelming event.
Crisis leaders need to understand the physical and psychological disruptions that are a common consequence of trauma. Trauma interrupts our ability to maintain a coherent narrative that explains our world and our place within it. We as humans need a worldview of ourselves and each other that makes sense to us. This sense-making narrative helps us interpret the past, negotiate the present, and move comfortably into the future. One of the functions of a crisis is that it interrupts our regular story: trauma can pause our bodies and brains at the moment of harm. We need crisis leaders to help us create meaning from our trauma experiences, which then helps our bodies and brains integrate the crisis into our larger story. Storytelling and reflection are essential to our collective crisis healing.
After an acute event occurs, the first response focus is the short term and should be centered around physical safety through ensuring a safe physical environment.
That’s where this project comes in: when physical safety has been established, the second recovery focus is the social and emotional climate.
The short-term recovery leads into long-term renewal, where the focus is on structural changes and procedures, coordinating policy, processes, and practices that center regeneration and healing.
And we know that crises are not linear. Schools may be recovering from a school shooting and then thrust into COVID-19 response. This work is messy, complex, and human; we are here to help navigate it all.
School Crisis Recovery
The recovery phase is the first three months, six months, and years after a harmful event; the focus is the social and emotional climate (safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection).
Recovery approaches help students cope with complex, lasting psychological impacts that persist beyond the initial days and weeks following an event, and that are sometimes unpredictable and debilitating. Long-term recovery strategies are employed in the months and years after the school has returned to its pre-crisis routine.
School Crisis Renewal
The renewal phase requires crisis leadership after the first year, first three years, five years or more after a harmful event or crisis is experienced; it includes healing, meaning-making, and new navigation of school identity after an overwhelming event. The focus is on structural changes and procedures, coordinating policy, processes, and practices that center regeneration and healing.
Renewal strategies are community- defined, culturally informed approaches that support students to make sense of violent events, develop a coherent and affirming narrative, and foster community resilience.
School Mental Health Crisis Leadership
Crises can be interrupters or the norm, depending on the school and its community context. Whether the crisis is acute, chronic, or complex, there are shared leadership practices, policies, and paradigm shifts that can support all stakeholders’ efforts to successfully navigate a crisis. In a crisis, school mental health leaders help a school community build a collective coping system; navigate overwhelming situations; and stay attuned to how various members will be activated by different events, experience shared events differently, and have varying response, recovery, and renewal needs.
Our project uses the definition for school mental health crisis leadership in School Mental Health Crisis Leadership Lessons (June 2020), as follows: The individual, collective, organizational, and systemic skills, knowledge, and competencies to create school conditions, climates, and cultures that empower others to navigate uncertainty and harm. This leadership is based on awareness and acceptance of the responsibility and accountability to help all students, staff, and partners repair, reconnect, regulate, and restore.