Stress strikes fourschools out of ten

Four out of 10 schools in Fife experienced traumatic incidents last year, causing serious distress to pupils, staff and the community. Without speedy action, schools can suffer long-term effects, a study by the council's psychological service has discovered.

Guidelines due shortly are expected to confirm teachers are best placed to respond to a crisis and that an influx of other professionals adds to the stress.

Deaths of pupils and staff, accidents and illnesses, vandalism and arson all brought unexpected pressures on 40 per cent of schools. Maureen Jack, a team member, said: "Fires led to feelings of loss and anger among the school community. Janitors may need support and consideration too."

The study of 168 out of 194 Fife schools revealed that 68 had coped with difficulties, while many teachers reported previous incidents that continued to have a lasting effect. Seventeen children died during the year, equivalent to one in 3,500.

Mrs Jack said: "There were two important effects. First, incidents led to an increased workload. Letters had to be written, staff had to attend funerals and they needed time to support pupils. Second, all of these incidents affected people emotionally, even fires when no one was hurt or injured."

Two-thirds of staff commented positively on the support they received. Cards sent by directors concerning incidents some years ago were remembered and appreciated. But a third of schools found the response was too slow and some were unprepared for the pressure, including headteachers who experienced a sense of isolation.

Elly Alexander, a co-worker on the study team, reported: "Rapid action to inform pupils and staff sensitively and accurately and to provide immediate support to distressed children reduces the traumatic impact of an event. Where possible, pupils should be told of any incident simply in small groups and with an opportunity to raise questions."

The school should be kept open and normal routines and timetables maintained as far as possible. Larger schools should designate teachers with particular interpersonal skills to share responsibilities and small schools need to have peer support from "buddy" schools.

Class teachers should explain incidents to pupils, initiate support groups and bring in help if necessary, and continue to monitor for delayed reactions.

Ms Alexander said: "It is important that schools should be able to retain control of situations. The potential of additional stress being caused by an influx of helping professionals is recognised."

Pressure signs

* Common reactions in adults

Fearanxiety - Personal invulnerability shattered.

Numbness - inability to appreciate what has happened. No obvious reaction.

Guilt - not being able to prevent the incident. Not being severely affected.

Anger - others not doing more. Others treating incidents lightly. Injustice.

Shame - not being able to cope. Being seen to be emotional or distressed in front of others.

Preoccupation - flashbacks, thinking about nothing else, difficulty concentrating.

Longing - everything should return to normal. Wishing incident had never happened.

* Common reactions in children

Children and young people share the same feelings but might not be able to express them directly. Young children often show their feelings by the way they behave, react or respond.

Other traits - increased misbehaviour and "younger" behaviour; lots of "pretend" play, including a desire to act out details of what took place; bad dreams, fear of being alone, fear of dark; "clinginess", including a desire to sleep with parents; preoccupation with the event and difficulty concentrating; heightened alertness to danger, including sensitivity to loud noises; changes in appetite; fears for their own safety or that of others; reluctance to talk.

* Ways forward

Talk - talking things over is an important part of the recovery process so don't be self-conscious or embarrassed to refer to it days, weeks or months later.

Facing up - try not to avoid things which may trigger a distressing reaction but do not be afraid to get help. By confronting people and situations, over time they will lose their power to upset you.

Get and accept support - even if you consider yourself a strong person, accept the support and concern of others. Sharing experiences can forge helpful relationships.

* Classroom debriefings

Structure group discussions to allow the class to sort out the events leading to the incident and express their feelings and reactions. Establish ground rules for discussion, provide facts about the incident, encourage questions.

Share stories - where they were, what they saw, what they felt.

Share reactions - explain to pupils that following an incident it is not unusual for people to feel and misbehave differently for a while.

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