Strategies to help students feel calm

After critical incidents, sometimes staff feel overwhelmed and out of their depth. Students may need more help and support to calm down because their anxiety or anger may be on overdrive. A stressful event might trigger a complex physiological reaction in many people. This is sometimes called the fight-flight response. People’s bodies are made ready for action and for dealing with the stressor. Once the event has passed, people usually calm down and return to their resting state. But if the event was a potentially traumatic critical incident, then it may be much harder for students to calm down, especially if they continue to feel unsafe. Things that help them to take control of their physiological response and regulate their emotions will help them to cope once the critical incident has passed.

Manage and validate strong emotions

Following critical incidents, distress is completely normal. It is completely understandable that many students and staff might find themselves feeling anything but calm. It is not your responsibility to get everyone to simply calm down. But there are things that you can do to help them to manage their emotions, so that they are not overwhelmed by them. Rather than trying to screw the lid back on to a bottle of fizzy water that is spraying out the top, it’s better to let the fizz out and then put the lid on. Similarly, it can be useful to acknowledge and validate the strong emotions that students and staff may have.

If you want the students to feel calm, then it is important to help the staff to be calm. And if you want the staff to be calm, then it is important that the senior leaders can be calm too. For some, simply having familiar and trusted people (peers and adults) around can have an important impact on how calm they feel. And for others, the respite of a pleasant activity can break the panic cycle.

School and college staff are usually experts in helping students to regulate their emotions. Every day at school and college they can help students be alert enough to learn, but not so hyper-aroused that they can’t concentrate or sit still. Staff also know that different children respond to different strategies. This can include running around to settle, listening to music, relaxation exercises, colouring, or fidget toys. Your school or college may already have resources such as sensory rooms or quiet places that students may already use.

Key actions

  • Normalise stress reactions to the critical incident for your staff and students.
  • Remind staff that they are already experts in helping students regulate their emotions.
  • Provide information about stress reactions and anxiety management techniques to staff.
  • Provide information about stress reactions and anxiety management techniques to students.
  • Engage in your own approach to anxiety management.
  • Help staff and students resolve concerns.
  • Offer uplifting activities not associated with the critical incident.