Crisis: a lesson in life

From Dunblane to a pet's death, children suffer trauma - but are rarely taught how to deal with it. It is time schools brought the language of emotion into class.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Elizabeth Capewell was not at her desk the day mass killer Michael Ryan burst into John O'Gaunt School in Hungerford - where, until quite recently, he'd been a pupil - and finally ended the random violence by killing himself. She'd been burgled the day before and was at home, tidying things up, when news of the massacre of 16 people in Hungerford came in.

The impact of the shootings one August day in 1987 was profound. For Elizabeth Capewell, a former geography teacher who co-ordinated Berkshire's youth and community work from the school, initial shock soon turned into trauma. Her absence from the final scene of the bloodshed prompted irrational - but classic - symptoms of guilt. She began to contemplate resignation. The apparent failure of her county hall bosses to accept that she and her staff, now involved in a delicate operation to try and heal a grossly violated community, required counselling, provoked intense anger.

Eleven years on, Capewell believes it is possible to see that some good did emerge from a tragedy that sent shock waves far beyond the small Berkshire market town. Gradual sea-changes in the way schools recognise the impact of trauma on children, whether it is a school in shock when two children are abducted in Hastings, or an entire town being bereaved in the case of Hungerford or Dunblane, and then try to do something to ameliorate it, can be traced to the horror in Hungerford.

Elizabeth Capewell walked away from her job. "I was never asked about my experience, or that of my staff," she recalls today. "We were instructed not to talk about it, and were labelled as `emotional' if we did." She trained as a counsellor and was quickly urged to practise her new skills, discretely working alongside aid groups with young people involved in two major disasters that followed Hungerford - at Lockerbie, which "celebrated" its 10th anniversary in December, and Hillsborough. This work confirmed her belief that the education service lacked sufficient understanding and expertise to adequately respond to crises - and not just the big, eye-catching incidents.

Now 51, she is the director of the Centre for Crisis Management and Education. Last August, she spent time in Omagh where she was closely involved in the response to the terrorist bomb that killed 29 people. The Western Education and Libraries Board invited her in. She had impressed observers with her early intervention strategies at Dunblane. Now she was asked to take on the immensely challenging job of trying to help mend the deep wounds of another gravely shattered community.

"The work was guided by the principle that early intervention, concentrating on the building of coping skills and preventive education, will reduce existing problems and prevent unnecessary secondary stress," she explains. "Schools, libraries and the youth service were vital agents in providing this help. As much as disaster creates ripples of shock through the community, we aimed to create positive ripples to initiate support and stimulate the process of adjustment."

She encountered resistance and a high degree of denial and disbelief about the impact of trauma on children. Comments such as "children are resilient" and "we must get back to normal" were typical. They were wrong, too, irrespective of the situation, for she believes they undermine efforts to help youngsters - especially under-fives and teenagers - overcome their grief.

Strong myths prevent schools taking action, she says. Yet she is often greeted in schools by the fear of mass hysteria, and reservations that children might display strong emotions. And if pupils are not behaving in a distressed way, then it is often assumed that their teachers should not do anything if they don't want to risk disturbing the balance. Above all, Capewell adds, there is a strong feeling that mentioning any incident to pupils will harm them.

"I think it is dangerous to ignore trauma. This is not about schools wallowing in problems but giving children the best advice and material to help them cope. Sadly, too many schools can't do this because they're unable to handle some of their pupils and the teachers are stressed out. They're not functioning."

Recently she carried out a survey of what teachers thought about death/stress education programmes in schools. "Such work only serves to depress", and "we must get on with the living, not dwell on death", were typical of the replies she received.

According to Capewell, only a child who feels at ease with difficult situations can be described as truly resilient. "Why," she asks, "does the need to protect children so often become a device which prevents them receiving help and even using their own coping skills? In the end, this keeps them as victims of their past. Trauma is not linear, but cyclical. Untreated, it goes underground where it eats at the system and re-emerges later in life."

She cites the example of a school which recently suffered a crisis when, all at once, a teacher suddenly died and evidence emerged of creative budgeting and an illicit affair between a teacher and a pupil. "New people came in and wanted a clean sweep. They didn't want to look at the past because it was too painful." But the problems had not disappeared with the passing of time and, within a couple of years, they returned to haunt the school. Staff morale and pupils' results plummeted.

"Most of us in the UK who have offered help to schools as external agents after trauma have experienced rejection. Too often they don't want to know until a disaster strikes. Most local education authorities adopt a `wait and see' approach and only react after the event. Even then, distress has to be very visible before they'll act."

There are signs this is slowly changing. But there is still a big need to understand the long-term effects of trauma, and for more early preventative work. This means training teachers properly so they can help to build up the ability of pupils to cope with distress. Some already do so in both normal and natural classroom situations. So when, for instance, a pet hamster dies, the death is not avoided but explained in appropriate language. Capewell is a firm believer in pupils being taught the language of feeling, or emotional literacy, so they can begin to express what's going on inside them.

"What I believe teachers should be teaching is not odd but extraordinarily practical, since it is to do with coping, learning life skills. A crisis can provide opportunities for much real-life learning at a time when children want and need to find solutions."

Even if disaster doesn't happen, stress prevention and death education programmes are a good preparation for much of adult life, she says. An awful lot of potential heartache can be avoided.

Centre for Crisis Management and Education. Telephone:01635 30644