When Terrorists Strike: What School Counselors
Can Do. ERIC Digest.
by Juhnke, Gerald A.
Terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, and the continued
threats of terrorism have the potential to engender negative psychological
effects upon school age children and their families. School counselors
and mental health professionals working with children need to be knowledgeable
regarding interventions which allow students to openly discuss immediate
and future concerns, cumulative stressors resulting from on-going terrorist
threats, and post-terrorism psychopathology (e.g., anxiety, distress, etc.).
This digest will familiarize readers with basic Critical Incident Stress
Debriefings (CISD), outline the differences between CISD and the Adapted
Family Debriefing Model for school students, and describe how mental health
professionals can use this model as a post-terrorism response intervention.
CRITICAL INCIDENT STRESS DEBRIEFING VS. THE ADAPTED FAMILY DEBRIEFING:
MODEL FOR SCHOOL STUDENTS
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is a seven-stage, small group
process originally developed for use with adult emergency workers who encounter
particularly distressing situations (Mitchell & Everly, 1993). Some
have cited CISD as a viable intervention with children and adolescents
who experience violence or suicide (O'Hara, Taylor, & Simpson, 1994;
Thompson, 1990). Yet, CISD was developed solely for adult use and did not
take into account the special developmental needs of children. The Adapted
Family Debriefing Model, however, was developed as an assessment and intervention
method for student populations exposed to violence (Juhnke, 1997). Evolved
from CISD's single group experience, the Adapted Family Debriefing Model
for school students requires two separate debriefing experiences. The first
debriefing experience is with students' parents only. The second is a joint
student-parent debriefing experience. Additionally, unlike the CISD process
which utilizes nonprofessional, adult peer facilitators, the Adapted Family
Debriefing Model for school students requires the use of trained mental
health professionals who have specific knowledge regarding children's developmental
The primary team members within the Adapted Family Debriefing Model
for school students are leader, co-leader, and doorkeeper. The leader explains
the debriefing process, creates a supportive milieu, identifies those experiencing
excessive levels of emotional discomfort, and directs team members via
hand signals to intervene with distraught students or parents. In addition,
the leader discusses with parents and students common symptoms experienced
by children who: (a) have personally experienced terrorist acts or have
suffered loss as a result of such acts (e.g., the death of a grandparent
or sibling resulting from terrorism, etc.), (b) have witnessed via the
media terrorist acts or the aftermath of same, (c) understand the potential
for continued terrorist acts, or (d) experience the cumulative effects
of multiple terrorist acts. The leader normalizes manifest symptoms and
encourages parents to recognize more severe symptomatology which may require
additional counseling (e.g., recurrent encopresis, persistent outbursts
of anger, chronic hypervigilance).
Co-leaders add relevant comments during the session and give immediate
support to students and parents who become emotionally distraught. They
also help prevent disruption that may otherwise inhibit group dynamics.
The doorkeeper prevents nonparticipants, such as news journalists, from
entering the session. Doorkeepers also prevent severely distraught students
or parents from bolting from sessions.
Before the Debriefing
Before the debriefing, team members should be apprized of the circumstances
surrounding the debriefing. For example, is the debriefing the result of
the death of a fellow student from a terrorist act? Or, is the debriefing
in response to cumulative effects of terrorist activities? Additionally,
teams should learn whether or not students' parents are at increased risk
due to their occupations or have a greater probability of being activated
into military service. These factors will likely have an influence upon
participants' moods and their perceptions of terrorist acts.
Separate Debriefings for Parents and Students
Parent and student needs are often different. Thus, the first session
is conducted with parents. It is important to keep the number of parents
small (i.e., fewer than 12). Parents often express frustration and anger
regarding their inability to adequately protect their children from terrorism.
Many will perceive the situation as "hopeless" and "out of their control."
Thus, it is imperative that the team keeps parents focused on the immediate
needs of their children. Promises of future student safety cannot be guaranteed
and detract from the students' immediate needs. Parents need to be reminded
that the goals of this session are to: (a) learn about possible symptoms
their children may exhibit, (b) obtain available referral sources, and
(c) learn to validate and normalize their children's concerns.
During the joint student-parent debriefing, two circles are formed.
No more than five or six students of similar ages should sit in the inner
circle with friends or familiar peers presenting with similar concerns.
Parents should sit behind their children, promoting a perception of stability,
unity, and support.
SEVEN-STEP ADAPTED FAMILY DEBRIEFING MODEL
1. Introduction step. During the introduction step, the leader identifies
team members and establishes rules for the debriefing experience. Persons
not directly related to the children or debriefing process are asked to
leave. Confidentiality is explained in terms understandable to the students
and participants are encouraged not to discuss what is said within the
session outside the debriefing room. The leader states that the purpose
of the session is to help students better understand their feelings about
the specific terrorist act and increase their coping skills related to
continued terrorist threats.
2. Fact gathering step. The second step of the process is fact gathering.
The leader will ask the children to report what the experience of the terrorist
act was like for them. Should the debriefing be related to terrorist acts
which the students indirectly observed via media coverage, the leader may
begin by asking about what the students saw on television. Those speaking
are encouraged to state what they did when they first saw or heard about
the terrorism. Emphasis is placed upon telling the facts of what each student
encountered. However, should students begin sharing feelings, the leader
and co-leaders should acknowledge emotions expressed and indicate that
these feelings are normal.
3. Thought step. This transitional step helps participants move from
the cognitive to the affective domain. The leader asks questions related
to what students thought when the terrorism erupted. During this step it
is crucial to continue to validate and normalize each student's reported
thoughts and perceptions.
4. Reaction step. The thought step can quickly give way to the emotionally
charged reaction step. Here, the focus should be kept upon participants'
reactions to the terrorism. Typically, the leader will start with a question
like, "What has been the most difficult part of seeing the airliner fly
into the Twin Towers?"
5. Symptom step. During this step, the leader helps direct the group
from the affective domain back to the cognitive domain. The leader uses
age appropriate language to ask students about any physical, cognitive,
or affective symptoms experienced since the violent episode. Often the
leader will discuss symptoms such as nausea, trembling hands, inability
to concentrate, or feelings of anxiety, asking those who have encountered
such experiences to raise their hands. Such a show of hands helps normalize
the described symptoms and often helps survivors experience relief.
6. Teaching step. Symptoms experienced by group members are reported
in age appropriate ways as being both normal and expected. Possible future
symptoms can be briefly described (e.g., reoccurring dreams of being attacked).
This helps both parents and students better understand symptoms that they
may encounter and gives permission to discuss such symptoms. During this
step the group leader may ask, "What have you done or noticed your friends,
teachers, and parents doing that have helped you handle this situation?"
This question suggests that the students are doing well and helps them
begin to look for signs of progress. Sometimes older students will express
feelings of support from peers, teachers, or parents. Younger students
may use active fantasy, such as pretending to be a hero, to help them better
cope with their fears or concerns.
7. Re-entry step. The re-entry step attempts to place some closure on
the experience and allows participants to discuss further concerns. The
leader may ask students and parents to revisit pressing issues, discuss
new topics or mention thoughts which might help the debriefing process
come to a more successful end. After addressing any issues, the debriefing
team makes a few closing comments related to group progress or support.
A hand-out for students and another written for adults discussing common
reaction symptoms can be helpful. Younger children may prefer drawing faces
which depict how they currently feel (e.g., anxious, sad, frightened).
Later parents can use these pictures as conversation starters with their
children at home. Hand-outs should list a 24-hour helpline number and include
the telephone number for the student's school counselor. Often, it is helpful
to introduce parents to their child's school counselor at the debriefing.
After the session, team members should mingle with parents and children
as refreshments are served, looking for those who appear shaken or are
experiencing severe distress. These persons should be encouraged to immediately
meet with a counselor. The promotion of peer support (both parent and student)
is important. Students and parents should be encouraged to telephone one
another over the next few days to aid in the recovery process.
SUMMARY & CONCLUSION
The Adapted Family Debriefing Model for school students described above
demonstrates promise for helping both student survivors of terrorism and
their parents cope with negative psychological and social effects. The
model has distinct differences from traditional CISD and was developed
specifically for students. The model is relatively easy to implement and
can be modified to meet the needs of students and parents alike.
Juhnke, G. A. (1997). After school violence: An adapted critical incident
stress debriefing model for student survivors and their parents. Elementary
School Guidance & Counseling, 31, 163-170.
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debriefing (CISD): An operations manual for the prevention of traumatic
stress among emergency services and disaster workers. Ellicott City, MD:
O'Hara, D. M., Taylor, R., & Simpson, K. (1994). Critical incident
stress debriefing: Bereavement support in schools developing a role for
an LEA education psychology service. Educational Psychology in Practice,
Thompson, R. (1990). Post-traumatic loss debriefing: Providing immediate
support for survivors of suicide or sudden loss. Greensboro, NC: ERIC Clearinghouse
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