How to help staff and students feel safe

Your priority should be to make sure that your students and staff are safe as soon as possible. If there is an ongoing lack of safety (e.g. an epidemic, a flood), enhancing actual safety as well as their perception of safety can reduce the negative impact of the event.

Promote a sense of safety

It is important to help your students and staff to feel safe. But it may be more complicated than ensuring their actual safety and communicating that to them. This is not about pretending that all is well. The key is to help students and staff develop realistic and balanced views of how safe things are based on factual accurate information.

The nature of traumatic events is that they tend colour people’s view of the world, themselves, and others. They may now see their world as a dangerous and unpredictable place, regardless of the actual level of risk. They may see themselves as vulnerable, helpless and even fragile. They may see others (including you and other staff) as dangerous, violent, untrustworthy, or even malicious. In the eyes of your students and staff, the catastrophic message of the trauma may wash away years of evidence to the contrary. Or in some situations it might confirm ideas that they had held previously.

Your staff and students may need to relearn that the world is safe, and they are resilient. They also may need to relearn that other people can be safe, compassionate, and trustworthy. You can do this partly by drawing their attention to evidence to support a more balanced view of things. It may take time and effort for this rebalancing to take effect. Their beliefs based on the traumatic nature of the events are intended to keep the person safe. Our brains work on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle.

A sense of safety can be communicated in subtle ways. Your actions and tone of communication will speak volumes about how reliable others are and how predictable the world is. Things like, being reliable, doing what you say you will do, being where you say you will be, all communicate safety. You and other staff may need to be more visible for a while. The presence of warm and familiar staff for example at the school gates, in the corridors and at break times will help students and staff to feel safer

Sometimes the way in which the school or college responds may add to the students’ feelings that they are not safe. For example, if the timetable must change due to resources or staff, then the student’s world can continue to feel very unpredictable. Structure and predictability may help them to feel that the world is not completely unsafe. A timetable can give a strong message that some things remain predictable and familiar. Of course, routines should not be applied rigidly. The timetable may need to be adjusted in the short term and in the immediate aftermath. But, if the timetable changes indefinitely, that might make the students feel less safe and secure. It may make them start to believe that the critical incident has impacted the running of the school.

As your students and staff experience repeated evidence that the world is safe, they are capable, and others are trustworthy, they can start to develop more realistic beliefs. These will still include the facts of the critical incident, but in a more balanced and useful way. For example, they can start to see that although the person who committed the assault was violent, not everyone is, or even though that coach crashed, that doesn’t mean that every vehicle is unsafe

Key actions

  • Surround students and staff with evidence to support balanced views of the world, themselves and others.
  • Be reliable: do what you say you will do, be where you say you will be.
  • Ensure structure and predictability in the school day.
  • Provide consistent, clear communications to staff, students and carers.

Provide trustworthy and accurate information

Providing accurate information which students, staff and families can rely upon will help to manage rumours and speculative accounts which are likely to focus on the more spectacular aspects of the event and may lead to an over-estimation of the level of risk. Social media and news media make it impossible to prevent them from coming across speculative, inaccurate, and frankly horrific accounts. But reliable, trustworthy information equips students, staff and carers to deal with them.

If some facts are not yet known, then be honest about that and explain that is why you are unable to share information at that time – that is better than saying nothing and not saying why.

It may feel as if you have no control over the way that the event is reported by the news media. But, by providing the media with reliable information as well, you can start to influence their accounts. You may be able to establish relationships with some reporters to negotiate how the incident is reported.

Carers can play an important role in monitoring and limiting the media accounts that their children have access to. It may be useful to explain this to them and make them aware of the link between accessing media accounts of events and the subsequent development of difficulties.

Communicating with parents and carers is really important. If students receive different information from different adults, then they are likely to feel less safe. They will not know which source to trust. Let parents and carers know what you tell the students, so the messages can be re-enforced and strengthened at home.

Key actions

  • Provide reliable, trustworthy information about what happened.
  • Provide media sources with useful information.
  • Encourage students and staff to limit exposure to news media, especially graphic films and images.
  • Educate parents and carers to monitor and limit news exposure for students.
  • Share the same information with parents, carers and the students.