Teaching very difficult students is extremely stressful. Although there will be incidents that are exceedingly traumatic, it is the day to day grind of working with these kids and that build-up of stress that will destroy your health. At these times you will build-up an excess of physical and emotional energy. Unless you do discharge this energy, it remains ‘locked’ in your physiology. Debriefing is the process of discharging that energy, especially the emotional element.
Much of the literature on debriefing refers to the process of providing a service for those who have been exposed to a traumatic event. This Newsletter is more about you having the means to deal with your own emotional load within a school or other specialist setting. For ‘extreme’ traumatic events you need specialist support to deal with the victims.
On an individual level, the self-delivered debriefing process is very much following the steps outlined above in the recovery section. These are the physical, emotional and behavioural activities itemised in this section. This ‘self-help’ is predominantly the use of physical practices such as going to a gym, jogging, swimming anything that gets you to use up that energy that had been activated at the time you were stressed.
One technique I have used that is effective to immediately release the physical excess present after a very stressful incident is to go to a private place in the school, with a towel and out of the sight of others, twist the towel as hard as I could, I would talk to it, get all my frustrations out on that piece of material. The feeling of release was significant.
I have seen others use the action of punching a special bag or other inert object to achieve this result. There are mixed opinions about using this approach. There is some evidence it doesn’t relieve the emotional component caused by the aggravation, the participants remain angry towards the object of their frustration.
There is also the idea that punching, as a solution for a problem could be generalised. Punching another may have a short-term pay-off but there is a chance that the practice of punching an inert bag could unconsciously evolve into punching the object that caused the stress! Some would argue that it is the repetitive movement of the punching that reproduces a type of soothing, this repetition has seen in the rhythmic technique in swimming also seen as a productive approach to elevated stress levels.
The self-help approach may not be as effective in dealing with the psychological load as would working with others. It may well be that you can get support from a colleague when you are under elevated stress levels. This could be a friend or co-worker who you trust. It is best, but not vital if this support person works in the same field. They will understand the problems you face and their validation carries a lot of weight. You both know what is really going on.
The use of your own intimate partner, wife, parent or even one of your children is not so clear cut. To provide an effective environment for a victim the support person must remain partially detached from the concerns raised in this issue. It is hard for your intimate other not to feel an emotional connection, it is the nature of the relationship! However, they will be your greatest support and not sharing is shutting them out, this is not advisable for a meaningful relationship.
This is a real difficult issue; the best debriefing really is from someone who can remain detached from your emotions but compassionate about how you would feel because they really understand what it is like to be in that situation.
Therefore, try to develop a network of supporters who you can use and who will use you when they are needed. Personal contact is preferable but the use of technology such as Skype is a good substitute. Avoid social media, the things you say at this time will be sensitive and not for public consumption or for your record!
The last thing I will mention is debriefing for those establishments that deal with difficult kids as a group. These are vital in maintaining a healthy team culture, they allow the psychological wounds that occur throughout each day but these sessions are not for those occasional times when the level of personal damage is significant, either for the students or a staff member. This is the cool down time, the time for the physical body to recover is complete.
In the work place there will be times when the outburst has created issues that challenge the practices of the organisation. These may involve the potential of future discipline action or legal concerns. This does not imply there is no need for debriefing but at these times the management should provide professional, independent counselling. However, for the day to day situations a less formal, but no less important debriefing practice there is a benefit of having the ‘team’ debrief itself!
There are some rules to be followed if you are setting-up a formal debriefing session at the end of each working shift. These are fairly obvious:
- Begin Simply – Even if you know there has been a fairly difficult situation the staff has dealt with don’t go straight into discussing that. By generally discussing the day that issue will emerge when the ‘time is right’. This relies on a level of trust that must exist! In fact, without trust debriefing can become an additional stressor!
- Equal Rights – Although we don’t have equal rights in our places of work we do have equity at a personal level. No one individual’s needs are more important than any others. Debriefing is not about allocating blame or setting future agendas it is solely about dealing with the emotional discomfort of the day.
- There are no ‘power plays’ – We will never repair everyone’s emotional state if there is an obvious difference in how each member of the team is valued; any imbalance of power will not allow long term issues to be addressed effectively.
- No Secrets – Too often people fail to tell exactly how they feel. On the one hand it may be because they don’t trust everyone at the meeting or they may feel that others can’t handle their feelings. Often the stress is because there has been a conflict between staff members. It is these that must be addressed; if not they can destroy the whole program. There are no records of these meetings and any comments are to stay within the group. If, as a result of the discussion the group agree that some things need to change then everyone is involved in the decision and those outside of the team should not be privy to the discussions that led to that policy change.
- The Environment – Conduct the debriefing in a pleasant environment. Make sure everyone is comfortable and there are no distractions. Avoid everyone having a cup of coffee or tea as enjoyable as that may seem, debriefing is a formal part of the day.
- Punctuality – always start and finish at a set time. On most days you will feel the atmosphere lighten and, in my experience, when the debriefing is accomplished the groups will soon be laughing about the day. Be aware that in all stressful occupations the humour has a very dark quality; this should be expected and although may sometime appear to be disrespectful, you have to remember these are the people who front up every day and do there best for the kids. Their actions define the respect they have for the students!
If, on the other hand the mood within debriefing remains tense still finish at the designated time. The issue will still need to be addressed but by waiting for the next opportunity allows time for all to reflect on the situation. The main thing is not to carry on discussions with colleagues about the issue outside the confines of the debriefing process. To do so would be very destructive.
Debriefing is an important practice to maintain the health of any organisation that deals with highly demanding work. In a perfect world this would be a formal part of every working day however, in today’s busy world there seems to be no time for taking care of others. This is a travesty, taking time to debrief is the best long-term investment any organisation can make!