Competent Crisis Response: Information
for School Psychologists and Crisis
events do not exist in a vacuum. Like other social phenomena, they
should be understood within the social and cultural context in
which they occur.” (Young, 1997, p. 7-14)
School psychologists are increasingly involved in providing crisis response
within multicultural communities. Those who are committed to enhancing their
skills in cultural competency are more likely to be effective caregivers
when challenging situations arise. For example, reports from a 1989 Stockton,
California schoolyard shooting in a predominantly Southeast Asian community
found that school officials had difficulty communicating with parents, and
that police and medical crews were transporting unidentified children to
the hospital, resulting in unnecessary confusion and anxiety for the frightened
parents. As a result, parents were forced to wait for several agonizing
hours before learning the location and status of their children (Allen et
In another tragic example of the impact of culture on crisis, a Pakistani-American
teenager unsuccessfully attempted suicide in her school’s bathroom following
an arranged marriage orchestrated by her single mother (Lieberman & Davis,
2002). School officials then had the arduous task of notifying her mother,
who had not assimilated with American culture and spoke no English. Suicide
attempts among minority students are not uncommon; data indicates that African
American, American Indian, Mexican American, and gay and lesbian youths may
be particularly at risk (Lieberman & Davis, 2002).
Despite the importance of culturally competent crisis response, a recent
survey of NCSP practitioners (Allen et al., 2004) found that there is limited
awareness among school psychologists of how multiple factors and student
diversity influence the provision of crisis intervention services. In actuality,
culture influences what type of threat or event is perceived as traumatic,
how individuals interpret the meaning of crisis, and how individuals and
communities express traumatic reactions (Young, 1997). These factors, along
with the scenarios listed above, illustrate the importance of considering
culture in crisis response.
Developing Culturally Competent Crisis Plans
There are many ways that school psychologists can incorporate cultural competence
into their overall crisis plans and preparations. To begin with, crisis
plans should identify and address the diverse needs within the school community. These
would include (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003):
- Identifying specific culture-related needs of the community, such as
access to interpreters, religious figures, and healers.
- Maintaining a current profile of the cultural composition of the school/district
- Include race/ethnicity, languages/dialects spoken, age, gender, religion,
refugee/immigrant status, income and poverty levels, percentage of students
living in rural vs. urban areas, history of trauma, torture, or war experience,
and history of racial/ethnic relations within the greater community.
- Identifying formal and informal community resources that can help meet
diverse mental health needs.
- Developing a list of community resources able to lend assistance as interpreters
and translators in the event of a crisis.
- Identifying the meaning of suffering, pain, and death relevant to the
norms of the community’s cultural groups (Young, 1997).
- Anticipating and identifying possible solutions to cultural problems
that may arise in the event of a crisis.
- Identifying the full names of the parents and guardians of all children
in the school, since last names can differ within families.
The Role of the Crisis Team
The school- or district-wide crisis team plays an integral role in multicultural
crisis response, and team members should be selected and trained accordingly. Ideally,
team members should represent the cultural and linguistic makeup of the school
community (Allen et al., 2004; Project Liberty). When this is not feasible,
the team should train and develop strong working relationships with outside
cultural brokers, interpreters, and relevant community members willing to
assist in a crisis.
Ongoing team training topics can include awareness of cultural values and
traditions, linguistics and literacy, immigration experiences and status,
help-seeking behaviors, cross-cultural outreach techniques and strategies,
and avoidance of stereotypes and labels (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003). Crisis
team members should also examine their own cultures, worldviews, and biases,
including how these may affect the provision of mental health services. For
example, cultural issues such as communication (decision and way to communicate
verbally and nonverbally), personal space (appropriateness of physical contact
and proximity), social organization (the influences of family, kinships,
tribes, and religious, political, and economic organizations), time (variability
in interpretation and measurement), and environmental control (belief about
external versus internal control) can affect responses to crisis (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003; Sandoval & Lewis, 2002).
In addition, crisis teams should establish relationships with community
resources, including trusted organizations, service providers, cultural and
faith-based community leaders, multicultural television stations, radio stations,
and newspapers (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003). Gathering information
from and establishing working relationships with these community resources
can speed up and improve effective response efforts following a crisis.
To ensure continuing cultural competence, crisis teams should conduct regular
evaluation of their crisis response efforts (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003). This can include a needs-assessment of the school and community,
and investigation of any barriers that are present when providing services
during a crisis.
Reactions to Crisis
When a crisis occurs, school psychologists and other responders should keep
in mind that survivors react to and recover from crisis within the context
of their individual backgrounds, viewpoints, and values (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003; Sandoval & Lewis, 2002, Young, 1996). Expression of emotion, description
of psychological symptoms, help-seeking behaviors, natural support networks,
and customs in dealing with trauma, loss, and healing often vary by culture. It
is also important to consider historical influences such as racism and discrimination,
war, and interment, as well as social and economic inequality when preparing
a crisis response. These factors may cause minority groups to distrust offers
of assistance, face majority anger and blame, and have limited access to
resources. In addition, groups who have previously experienced trauma (e.g.,
refugees) as well as those who have limited access to resources may be more
susceptible to harm from crisis.
Including Cultural Brokers
School psychologists should ensure that the crisis response is tailored
to the population in need. One way to do so is to include crisis responders
and cultural brokers (e.g., community leaders) from the affected minority
group(s) before, during, and in the aftermath of any crisis situation. In
addition, community-based groups can provide an important communication link
with the cultural groups they represent (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003). It
is worthwhile to consider involving civic associations/social clubs, neighborhood
groups, faith-based organizations/interfaith groups, mutual aid societies/voluntary
organizations, health care and social service providers, and nonprofit advocacy
organizations in the crisis planning and response plan, as well as in training
with school crisis teams. To ensure an organized response, crisis responders
should coordinate their work with each other, as well as with public and
Communications Following a Crisis
When a crisis occurs, disseminating timely information to the affected community
is of utmost importance. To reach all members of the community, oral and
written communication should be made available in languages other than English,
including sign language interpreters as needed (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003). Form letters prepared in advance for predictable tragic events (e.g.,
student deaths) in multiple languages can be adapted quickly when such events
occur. In addition, written material should always be supplemented with
other forms of information, such as radio, television, or announcements in
Ideally, the primary language of crisis survivors should be used in delivering
outreach and notification of other services. When native speakers are unavailable,
interpreters with basic knowledge of crisis response who are also trained
to accurately convey the tone, level, and meaning of the information presented
in the original language should be recruited (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003). However, it is usually inappropriate to use survivors’ friends and
relatives as interpreters, and all interpreters should be sensitive to confidentiality
issues. On an interpersonal level, responders should remain aware of culturally
specific communication techniques such as the use of eye and physical contact
and physical proximity, the integration of food and drink in discussions,
the pace of conversation, and body language.
Providing Culturally and Linguistically Competent Services
Following a crisis, care should be taken to provide services that are accessible,
appropriate, and equitable. Here are some tips for achieving these goals:
- Always convey respect and good will by dressing appropriately, participating
in access rituals, and saying “please” and “thank you” (Athey & Moody-Williams,
2003; Sandoval & Lewis, 2002; Young, 1997). Keep in mind that cultural
conventions can vary significantly.
- Be aware of cultural social status and gender conventions. Try to match
responders to students and families such that they will have a high status/level
of acceptance within the culture in question (Sandoval & Lewis, 2002).
- Help reestablish customs, rituals, and social relationships to enable
survivors to cope with the impact of a crisis (Athey & Moody-Williams,
- Assess who plays a significant role in a survivor’s family structure
by asking the person to describe his or her home, family, and community.
survivors to describe what they need from you to be of assistance to them. Then,
tell them truthfully what is within your capacity to do to lend assistance
- Acknowledge your limitations and differences. These may
include the inability to speak or understand the language, as well as confusion
over certain customs, rituals, or spiritual understandings. Try to convey
your sincere desire to learn about these customs to be able to more effectively
offer support (Young, 1997).
- Ask survivors if they would like to go to a
place of worship or a cultural center, or if there are any ceremonies
or rituals that are particularly directed at crisis in their culture (Young,
- Refer parents to culturally appropriate post-crisis resources,
such as “An
activity book for African American families: Helping children cope
with crisis” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
and National Black Child Development Institute, Inc., 2003).
culturally appropriate commemorations and anniversary activities, as
well as informational handouts to explain these rituals and customs to
the greater community (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003).
- Use cross-cultural
interventions including: group work, reduction of isolation, relaxation
techniques, meditation, education about crisis in culturally relevant
terms, and development of individual control (Young, 1997).
- Monitor access
to services, including crisis counseling, and design specific strategies
to reach the unengaged, as well as those whose traditions discourage
seeking help (Project Liberty).
Crisis Response Evaluation
Once the primary crisis response phase has ended, school psychologists should
initiate assessment and evaluation of the effectiveness of the response,
including cultural competence. This way, problems in the response process
can be identified and resolved. Involving representatives from diverse cultural
groups in process evaluation can further this objective (Athey & Moody-Williams,
Focus and discussion groups, as well as other program evaluation methods,
can be used to assess the following elements: leadership, understanding of
cultural competence, organizational culture, training, cultural competence
plan, and plan management (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003, Table 2-6, p.
38). In addition, crisis teams should maintain logs of the ideas that worked
well during the response, along with those that need improvement. This
way, future responders can shape their interventions based on past success
within the community.
Athey, J. & Moody-Williams, J. (2003). Developing
cultural competence in disaster mental health programs: Guiding principles
and recommendations. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human
Services. Available online at http://media.shs.net/ken/pdf/SMA03-3828/CulturalCompetence_FINALwithcovers.pdf
With additional information from:
Allen, M., Annandale, N., Gstettenbauer, A., Rutherford, M., Lyman, B. & Conklin, E. (2004). Providing
effective crisis intervention for students and families from diverse backgrounds. Paper
presented at the National Association of School Psychologists Annual Convention,
Dallas, TX. (Contact: Melissa Allen, Ph.D., Melissa_Allen@BYU.EDU)
Lieberman, R. & Davis, J. M. (2002). Suicide
Intervention. In Brock, S. E., Lazarus, P. J., and Jimerson, S.
R., (Eds.), Best Practices in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp.
531-551). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and
National Black Child Development Institute, Inc. (2003). An
activity book for African American families: Helping children cope with
crisis. Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health. Available
online at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/hccc/activitybook.htm
Project Liberty: Providing Culturally Competent Crisis Counseling
Services. Available on-line at: http://www.projectliberty.state.ny.us/Resources/PLCultural.pdf
Sandoval, J. & Lewis, S. (2002). Cultural considerations
in crisis intervention. In Brock, S. E., Lazarus, P. J., and Jimerson,
S. R., (Eds.), Best Practices in school crisis prevention and
intervention (pp. 293-308). Bethesda, MD: National Association
of School Psychologists.
Young, M. (1997). The community crisis response team training manual (Second Edition). Washington,
DC: National Organization for Victim Assistance, Washington, DC. NASP Handout
adaptation (Cultural Perspectives on Trauma and Critical Response)
by Kris Sieckert Available online at http://www.nasponline.org/NEAT/neat_cultural.html
Center for Trauma, Response, Recovery, and Preparedness (Cultural Competency
and Disaster Mental Health)
del Valle, P. (2002). Traumatized
refugee children. In Brock, S. E., Lazarus, P. J., and Jimerson,
S. R., (Eds.), Best Practices in school crisis prevention and
intervention (pp. 599-614). Bethesda, MD: National Association
of School Psychologists.
Developing Cultural Competence in Disaster Mental Health Programs: Guiding
Principles and Recommendations
Jimerson, S. R. & Huff, L. C. (2002). Responding
to a sudden, unexpected death at school: Chance favors the prepared professional. In
Brock, S. E., Lazarus, P. J., and Jimerson, S. R., (Eds.), Best
Practices in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp. 449-485). Bethesda,
MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
NASP Crisis Resources: http://www.nasponline.org/NEAT/crisismain.html
NASP Culturally Competent Practice (includes crisis resources): http://www.nasponline.org/culturalcompetence/index.html
Rabalais, A. E., Ruggiero, K. J., & Scotti, J. R.
(2002). Multicultural issues in the response of children to disasters.
In A. M. La Greca, W. K. Silverman, E. M. Vernberg, and M. C. Roberts,
(Eds.), Helping children cope with disasters
and terrorism (pp. 73-99). Washington, DC: American Psychological
Satcher, D. (1999). Overview of Cultural Diversity and Mental Health Services. In
Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Available online at http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth/chapter2/sec8.html
The following web sites contain anecdotal information that can provide a
starting point for learning about various cultural and religious traditions:
Death, funeral traditions, and mourning:
Funeral flower etiquette by religion:
Arlene Silva is a doctoral student in the school psychology
program at the University of Maryland; this fact sheet was developed during her summer (2004)
internship at NASP Headquarters.