Janelle Hilger-Kopshinsky has been helping children deal with traumatic loss for more than a decade. Now, as a crisis prevention and response specialist for Greenbush – The Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, she works with school districts and communities to help them implement strategies to prevent crises from occurring, de-escalate them when they do occur, and coordinate treatment for those affected.
“Grief happens universally but is experienced personally,” said Hilger-Kopshinsky. “Each district’s culture, each school’s subcultures, and each school’s crisis policies, they’re all very unique and individualized. We try to come in and support unique responses to unique situations.”
Hilger-Kopshinsky said sometimes cookie-cutter procedures with structured responses can actually cause harm if they don’t fit the crisis situation that has occurred. The supports an individual might need following a crisis event will vary based on factors like the amount of exposure they had to the event, the intensity of the exposure, and how many people were exposed.
While having written crisis policies is a great start, Hilger-Kopshinsky says those policies need to be living documents that grow and change over time.
“It needs to be a multidisciplinary team with multiple constituents providing input or serving on that crisis preparedness team,” Hilger-Kopshinsky said. “It’s only going to be effective if the school safety team is diverse and everyone in the district understands the plan.”
And if a crisis does occur, Hilger-Kopshinsky says teams should be willing to modify their procedures based on the needs that are observed.
She says one of the very first steps in responding to a crisis should be to conduct a screener to establish baseline information.
“If there is solid crisis preparedness happening in advance, then the folks who most likely would be intervening, the doers, would have some pre-contemplative things they’re monitoring,” Hilger-Kopshinsky said. “There’s one called Psychological First Aid. At this point you’re really just trying to stabilize kids and get them regulated. Then you’re doing some refinement and putting them on a spectrum.”
Hilger-Kopshinsky said there are certain data indicators that schools can use to measure improvement over time. Reductions in absences, tardies, and office referrals can all be indicators of progress.
However, Hilger-Kopshinsky says school administrators should expect some adverse behaviors following a traumatic event. In fact, those behaviors are often an essential part of dealing with trauma.
“What I think gets overlooked is the disruption or discord that happens following a traumatic event,” Hilger-Kopshinsky said. “There’s no way to progress through unless that happens. And sometimes because there’s some discomfort when that happens, the tendency is to try to wrap it up and move on quickly. But an adverse response is necessary. If people’s realities are shaken a little bit, we have to give them some space to express that.”
Of course, the best way to address a crisis situation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Hilger-Kopshinsky says schools are doing a lot of great work in this realm.
“There are so many universal precautions we can take that can reduce the probability of some of these things happening,” Hilger-Kopshinsky said. Creating a safe culture – physically and mentally – and taking time to know each student. Being aware of things. ‘See something, say something.’ There are a lot of tier one things schools are doing, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and prevention work like Second Step or other bullying prevention programs. If folks continue to do that in a thoughtful way we are going to reduce some of those crisis events.”
However, Hilger-Kopshinsky said schools need to be engaged in a continuous process of identifying gaps in supports and resources.
“The best prevention comes from that,” Hilger-Kopshinsky said. “Each chosen intervention or curriculum is going to have to be unique to what that school or district has as resources and has as limitations. They need that refinement of understanding what the school needs.”