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The following resource is intended for senior leaders in schools, however educational psychologists may also find this useful. It may be helpful to reflect what you would like to learn from this resource and clarify any questions that you would like answered by the end of it. It’s hoped that these materials will equip senior leaders with knowledge and skills when responding to a critical incident. Accessing these materials may be helpful to refresh your own knowledge or disseminating knowledge after you have accessed the face to face training, which was delivered by the Educational Psychology Service.

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Hopefully by accessing this resource, it will enable school leaders to be prepared to manage critical incidents and be able to access your schools strengths and areas for development. School leaders will also feel empowered to contain grief and trauma following a critical incident. Finally, the materials will hopefully help senior leaders to create a network of support.

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During the original face to face training, we discussed the importance of maintaining trust and confidentiality among the group, and respecting and encouraging each other in the group. We also reminded the group to be mindful and patient of others, and ensure everyone had the chance to speak. During the training Educational Psychologists (EPs) were available to answer any questions and offer support if needed. Should you have any questions or need support please speak to your link EP. As the content is emotive, it is always important to remember to be responsible for getting your own needs met and being mindful of your own responses to the content based on your own experiences.

Defining a Critical Incident

Defining a Critical Incident
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The definition used in these materials is from a Doctoral thesis by Beeke (2011) which looked at definitions and policies related to critical incidents specifically within educational settings. The definition by Beeke (2011) focused on traumatic events that happen within a school context and typically affect multiple people, but not necessarily in the school or during school hours. More generally, a critical incident is an event that impacts on the school community. It should be noted that this definition is one of many, and you may come across other definitions within the literature.

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The nature of a critical incident means that it is sudden and unexpected, contains real or imagined threats to a person and is likely to overwhelm the usual coping mechanisms and resources within a school because it causes significant impact or disruption within the school community. It’s important to be aware that a critical incident is likely to be traumatic for some people, but not necessarily all within the school community. The section on Trauma will explain this in more detail.

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There are a range of events that might be included when thinking about critical incidents, such as:

  • The death or significant injury of a pupil or member of staff through murder, assault, sudden death or suicide.

  • A serious accident involving pupils and school personnel, on or off school premises.

  • A violent attack or violent intrusion onto school premises.

  • A disaster in the community, e.g. Transport accident, terrorism.

  • A disaster affecting a community such as an international incident or war based deaths, which may occur in a distant part of the globe but have an impact on the local community.

These are examples, and by no means an exhaustive list. It’s important to note that individuals within a school may also experience sad and personally significant events, such as a family bereavement. While this is very distressing for the family, and schools should provide appropriate bereavement support for those individuals affected in the school (e.g. siblings), this would not necessarily be defined as a critical incident.

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It’s important to be aware that a critical incident is likely to be traumatic for some people, but not necessarily all within the school community, and that everyone responds to trauma differently. Still, research by Parkinson (1997) has highlighted that some of the typical needs of those affected by critical incidents should include the following:

  • Acknowledging and recognising the impact of the critical incident on individuals within the school community.

  • Gather information to inform an appropriate critical incident response, and make sure you provide accurate and appropriate information to staff, pupils, the family, and community, which will help to reduce the potential for false information or rumours spreading.

  • For those individuals who wish to talk about how they are feeling or have questions related to the critical incident, opportunities to talk to a trusted person should be made available. For example, young children may have questions related to death in general as they try to make sense of the situation. It is important to respond in a way that is developmentally appropriate, while being honest. For more information on children’s developmental understanding of death, please see the section on Bereavement and Loss.

  • Where the critical incident involves the death of a member of staff or pupil, it is important to be aware of culturally specific formal grieving processes of those impacted. Schools often want to provide opportunities for more informal events to give those in the community an opportunity to pay their respects, for example balloon releases or planting a tree. It is important to give careful consideration to how to remember those who have died. Where possible avoid establishing a memorial that would require extensive upkeep, e.g. a memorial garden, as if this is not able to be maintained it could be upsetting for the family in years to come.

  • Senior leaders should aim to facilitate the school returning to their normal daily routines as quickly as possible. For many impacted by a critical incident, there may have been significant upheaval in their lives. Therefore, having a familiar structured routine in school can provide a sense of stability and safety in an otherwise turbulent time. The time it takes to return to school will be dependent upon the kind of critical incident that occurred, e.g. flood or arson at the school versus an event outside of school.

  • For those closely affected by the critical incident, their return and reintegration will have to be carefully managed. Teaching staff should also be aware of different ways that children respond to trauma, and to be aware of the short and long-term effects of trauma. Teaching staff should also be mindful that once the pupils are reintegrated, some children affected might display behavioural changes in terms of difficulties managing their emotions or paying attention in class. 

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There’s an awareness that when there’s a critical incident it places a lot of responsibility and pressure onto school leaders. Senior leaders have reported feeling a huge sense of responsibility to get it right, and are more likely to normalise their own responses to the incident and fail to ask for support. Therefore, senior leaders might not recognise the impact of an incident on themselves and the potential impact that trauma can have on our judgements. In the video below, one head teacher describes their experience following a critical incident.

With thanks to Chris Upton (Head Teacher of Tarleton Community Primary School).

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When responding to critical incidents there are a variety of skills and good practice involved and the aim of these materials is to support senior leaders and teaching staff in developing the following skills:


  • Advanced skills in communication

  • An understanding of the support network (including the strengths and resources of internal staff)

  • Good planning over time

  • An understanding of bereavement and loss

  • An understanding of trauma

These different areas will be explored in more detail in other sections.

Critical incidents can be multi-layered and involve several elements, such as bereavement, trauma and cohesion issues, e.g. the Manchester Arena bombing.

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This section introduced critical incident response by defining what a critical incident is (and isn’t), briefly describing the impact of a critical incident on the school community, and describing the skills and good practice involved in responding to a critical incident.

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