In Control

How to help students and staff believe that they can have a positive influence

Believing that you can influence things that happen around you and to you is important for positive wellbeing. Researchers call this a ‘sense of self-efficacy’. Critical incidents can challenge students’ views that the world is safe and that they have some control over what is going on around them. It can change the way that students and staff see themselves and the groups to which they belong (class, tutor group, school or college, family, community, faith-group, ethnic group). They can start to believe that they are powerless, vulnerable and lack resilience.

Some students may not have had a sense of self-efficacy before the critical incident. They may not believe they had any control or influence on what happens in their lives in a positive way. For those students, a critical incident can confirm their sense of helplessness and powerlessness. For other students, a critical incident may wipe away any sense of self-efficacy that they had. There will also be some students whose sense of control and influence will remain intact despite the critical incident.

After critical incidents, schools and colleges can make choices that help students to repair (or install) their beliefs in their ability to influence things around them.

Remind students and staff of their abilities, strength, and courage

Many of your students and staff may have had a sense of self-efficacy before the critical incident, so your response may be aimed at reminding them of their abilities, strength, and courage.

Involving students in decision-making is an opportunity to enhance their sense of control. It can be tempting to make decisions on the students’ behalf and try to ‘fix things’ for them. But this may confirm an unhelpful perception that the student(s) have no control over what happens around them and to them. Instead, find opportunities to involve students close to the incident in decisions when you can, for example in planning memorials.

Working alongside carers as allies is important because over-protectiveness may work against student recovery. Parents and carers may be tempted to protect their children and start to do things for them “because” of the critical incident. This is unhelpful because the implicit message is that the student cannot cope; that they are damaged, vulnerable, or weakened in some way. It is important that you and the carers find the balance of protective nurturing care and supporting the students to stand on their own two feet.

This sense of self-efficacy extends to groups too. It is important for groups such as classes, year groups, or tutor groups to be supported to do things for themselves rather than have everything done for them. For example if student has died, a group of their friends could be involved in collecting and sharing memories or creating a memorial.

Key actions

  • Involve students and staff in decision-making when possible.
  • Help carers to support student self-efficacy and be aware of the dangers of over-protectiveness.
  • Support groups within your setting to do things for themselves.
  • Engage students in age-appropriate, adult-guided memorial rituals.

Work with external agencies in a way that empowers you and your staff

The response of some professionals, including school or college staff, may compound a sense of powerlessness. Bringing in ‘specialists’ from outside may be necessary, but it may also give the message that your school or college cannot cope. Make sure that the specialists work with you, your students and your staff in a way which empowers you to be able to manage, and not in a way that undermines.