Leading through Crises

In the third and final episode of this series, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith discusses leading through a crisis and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Henderson-Smith discusses how leaders can create a trauma-informed culture, guide their schools during times of transition, and lead when a crisis occurs in this series called “What It Means to Be a School Leader.” Dr. Henderson-Smith is a licensed counselor and a consultant for trauma-informed, resilience-oriented care with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.


  1. Distance Learning, Part 1 (podcast)
  2. Distance Learning, Part 2 (podcast)

Other Episodes in the Series

Episode Transcript

Linda Henderson-Smith: Schools should be continuously adopting a resilience-ing mindset. They should be thoughtfully going beyond just the detecting and analyzing the early warning signs of things and actually relentlessly learning from the threats and the crises. So part of that resilience-ing really utilizing those crises as opportunities, so that you can potentially put in what’s necessary to prevent them from happening again.

My name is Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith. I’m a licensed professional counselor and an educational psychologist by training.

Brent Miller: When crisis strikes, communities often turn to their school leaders to help get them through the difficult experience. Crises come in many shapes and can last for varying lengths of time. But there are some key practices school leaders can rely on and use consistently to help get their staff, students, parents and guardians and themselves through a crisis. Whether adjusting to a pandemic or handling a crisis inside their buildings, school leaders set the tone for navigating through the developing situation and recovering from it.

Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

In episode three of this series, What It Means to Be a School Leader, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith discusses leading through a crisis, the complicated feelings that can arise during stressful and anxiety-inducing situations, and how school leaders can guide and interact with their community during a crisis. Including lessons learned from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To begin, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith defines what we mean when we say a crisis, and what the difference is between a positive and a negative challenge.

LH: So for this discussion, I think it’s important that we define crisis as an event, a series of events or circumstances that overwhelms our abilities as individuals or as schools to handle that event, series of events or circumstances. So we’re talking about things like natural disasters or community traumas or somebody in the school family passing away… We’re talking about things that can really, truly overwhelm multiple people within our school settings and can create a crisis situation. So it can be a crisis within the school as it relates to one person, it can be a crisis as it relates to the whole school, or it can even be a crisis as it relates to the community and how it impacts the school.

BM: And so what is the difference between a positive and a negative challenge and how are people affected by them?

LH: At the individual level it’s important to understand that everybody faces challenges in their lives, and that not all stress is bad. Stress is really kind of on a continuum between what we can actually handle, which can be seen as some positive challenges, because we have control over them. We have the skills that we need to actually resolve them. And there’s a positive expectation as it relates to that outcome. And then on the other side of the continuum are those challenges that overwhelm our system. They overwhelm our resilient skills, our communication skills, the way in which we can handle them. And so they become negative experiences when an individual feels that they have little or no control and they’re not really able to predict the outcome, and they’re not really able to manage the situation. And so because of that, it’s perceived as a threat.

BM: When a person experiences a crisis, their body and mind can react in different ways. But it is important to understand these many different reactions and have a clear definition of what they mean.

So when we think of a crisis, obviously two words come to mind, anxiety, and worry. Can you explain what anxiety and worry are and how they’re different.

LH: Anxiety is rooted in our biology. In our brainstem, we have what’s called the survival mode response. You know it as fight, flight, or freeze. And it’s innate to us. The anxieties of that are innate to us, and rooted in our biology. Worry on the other hand, actually comes from the cortex. So it’s actually about the thoughts, the thinking, the processing that happens at that level of our brain. And so the worry is a feeling that comes out of our thought processes, not necessarily our innate responses to things. But both of them are normal.

BM: You just mentioned the survival mode response. Can you say a little bit more about what that is?

LH: Our survival mode response is our basic protective system within our bodies. We are hard-wired to try to survive. And so our body has an innate protective factor that tells us how to protect ourselves. We can either fight, we can flight, or we can freeze depending on the situation and what our body innately thinks is the best way to protect itself and stay alive in that moment.

BM: And in previous discussions for this series, we’ve talked a lot about resilience. I imagine understanding how to be resilient is especially important when we talk about addressing crises. Can you remind us what it means to be resilient and what resiliencing is?

LH: So we’ve talked a lot about resilience, which is the ability to adapt well to stress, trauma and tragedy. But resiliencing is a verb instead of a noun. And it emphasizes a temporal focus that involves kind of relentless feedback loops of anticipating problems, collaborating and improvising promptly to cope with adverse events and the learning that comes along with that. So resiliencing can happen at an individual level, but also at a school level… Across all levels. Across time and time after time. So over and over again.

BM: Successfully leading during a crisis means understanding that your staff may be experiencing difficulty dealing with their emotions and completing their task. Leaders must know how to address their community members’ stress and anxiety and be able to engage with them, wherever they are in their survival mode response.

So are there any interventions leaders can take to help address staff anxiety during a crisis?

LH: Well, recognizing that staff anxiety is innate… It’s biological. It’s hard-wired into who we are. I think there’s a couple of things that we need to do as leaders. The first one is to communicate. As I said above, I think communicating, over-communicating and making sure that what we communicate is kind. So Bren√© Brown says clear is kind, unclear is unkind. We need to make sure that when we’re communicating we are communicating everything that we have to communicate in clear ways that people can actually understand. The second is to provide regulation. So really kind of teaching people how to calm their own brains so that they can actually respond, process, and learn.

When people’s anxieties are high, their brain is actually unable to respond, process and learn. And so we’ve gotta teach them how to calm that down so that they can actually be in a better place to hear, to learn, to respond, to process. And then to the best of our abilities, we’ve got to answer the question. So we’ve gotta be empathic and actually use our active listening skills to understand better, but then answer the questions that are asked of us as… To the best of our ability and as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

BM: You spoke previously about the survival mode response and how there are different ways a person can respond to a crisis. So how should leaders engage with people who are experiencing a survival mode response, and is there anything that they should avoid doing?

LH: Regardless of where someone is, whether they’re… It’s in fight, flight, or freeze. When someone is in that space, as I just said, they’re not able to respond, process or learn. So the best thing to do is to actually engage in those regulation techniques and grounding techniques to calm the brain. Things like going for a walk, playing music, engaging in any activity that’s kind of repetitive and patterned and relational and respectful and helps the brain to calm is gonna be important.

What you should not do in those moments, no matter where somebody is, is try to engage in processing something or teaching something. Because in that moment, honestly… What I always say is, in that moment, all people hear is Charlie Brown’s teacher. They hear the wah, wah, wah. They don’t actually hear what you’re saying to them. So working with them to calm and to get them out of that survival mode response by infusing two to three-minute kind of calming techniques is a really great way to respond in those moments.

BM: We’ve talked a lot about how leaders should engage with their staff, but what should leaders do to maintain their own mental and emotional well-being during a crisis?

LH: What they can do is practice and build their own compassion resilience. So the compassion resilience toolkit for educators is a great resource to kind of help. But what it talks about is that we all need to be thinking about how we can focus on ourselves, heart, strength, mind, and spirit. And so heart is about how do we build relationships and engage in relationships with other people that is actually beneficial for us. It takes 15 minutes a week to build and maintain a relationship with someone else. So in the heart space, we’ve gotta figure out our friends, our families, how we can reconnect with them, but also how we connect with ourselves and how we build relationships with ourselves, and don’t lose ourselves in this.

The second is strength. That’s our body. So that is all the things that we all know we’re supposed to do. So drinking water, sleeping, exercising, eating right, making sure that we’re making sure that that’s connected. The third is really focusing on our mind. And so making sure that we’re emotionally and mentally strong. And so many people do that in many different ways, but meditation and connection with oneself is one way to really engage in that. And then spirit. Making sure that we understand what our purpose is, what our values are, and how what we do connects to that and pushing that forward. If we have all four of those in balance, we can be pretty well off, and prepared to create a safe space for ourselves and to be able to be resilient.

BM: You mentioned relationships. Can you say a little more about the importance of professional relationships during a crisis and what steps leaders can take to develop and maintain them during moments of stress?

LH: Relationships are key. Healing happens in relationships. Healing doesn’t happen just willy-nilly in isolation. That just doesn’t necessarily happen. And so leaders need to really understand that the foundation of all relationships is safety, trust and communication. And so we’ve gotta make sure as leaders that we understand that if there’s no relationship, there’s no trust, there’s no safety, then every communication is perceived as a threat. Every interaction is perceived as a threat, and can cause that crisis to escalate. So you’ve gotta build relationships with students, with staff, with parents in advance of a crisis, so that communication during a crisis is perceived as trusted communication versus a threat that can escalate it.

So some of the things we’ve talked about. Over-communicating is obviously best, but the other thing that’s important for leaders to really do in a crisis is to allow people to voice their concerns, their thoughts, their feelings, and potential resolutions is also important. We’ve gotta make sure that staff, students, parents, community members, have a safe space to communicate what’s really going on, what they’re really feeling. Because you can’t address an issue if you don’t know or don’t have it identified.

And so making sure that people… That you’re communicating, but you’re also allowing them to communicate so that they can receive the peer support that they need in order to get through the stress and the crisis together. And then of course, teaching modeling and practicing self-regulations in ongoing ways to support yourself and them. Knowing that you’re gonna potentially be talking about something that may cause more stress or may escalate the crisis, be proactive in regulating people, or practicing those things before, during and after the conversation. Take a break and refocus and regulate in the middle of it, and then again at the end, so that there’s an opening and a closing to the emotions and the overwhelming anxiety that may come.

BM: So we were just talking about professional relationships, and I’m wondering if there is anything the leader can do to help build personal relationships with their staff as well. After experiencing the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel like we can all agree how important it is to have good personal relationships during a crisis.

LH: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things that leaders can do to build personal relationships. One of the things that I’ve seen a lot over this time of COVID-19 and other crises, is the ability to have kind of check-ins. And not necessarily just like, “Oh, we have supervision once a week or once a month,” or whatever. But actual intentional check-ins of, “Hey, I just wanted to check in on you.” Whether that be text or through Zoom or Teams or whatever… Like Google Meet or however you do it, just having those one-on-one check-ins with staff is really important to building the personal relationship and allowing them to understand that you too are human and we’re going through this together. I think the other thing is encouraging the building of personal relationships between staff, between staff and staff, between staff and students.

And not inappropriate relationships, but the peer support, check-in kind of relationships. A principal or a leader within a school building can’t necessarily check in on all 200-plus staff, but they can build relationships between teams. They can encourage team building, so that team leads can create space to have those types of check-ins with each other. I think it’s really, truly necessary for people to realize that work is a part of who we are, but it’s not all of who we are.

BM: The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that a crisis does not necessarily have to be limited to a single moment, but it can in fact stretch on for months and even years. When a crisis continues for a long period of time, leaders will often have to contend with uncertainty and the ongoing unpredictability of when the crisis will end, and what will come next after it does.

LH: Even now, there’s a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19. And so even though people think of this as a new normal, we’re still actually sitting in the middle of a crisis. And so it’s not necessarily that it’s changed, we have to continue to treat it as such, because there is no clear end in sight, there is no solution that is… Everything is fixed. All the policies, and practices and everything is back to… There is no normal at the present moment. And the stress of that uncertainty continues to cause stress in students, staff, parents, teachers and leaders. And so leaders have to be aware of that and they really need to be cognizant of the fact that though it’s been over a year, this is still not necessarily the new normal. This is still a crisis situation that we are in the middle of.

And so, in one example I’ll give you is, in certain counties they’re already back in the classroom. However, over the past few months, they’ve had to quickly transition for weeks at a time, because someone tested positive for COVID, so they had to shut down the whole school and they had to clean up… Like, all of those things. So the stress of not knowing from week to week, “Will I be teaching from home or from the building? Will I be learning from home or from the building? Will I have to get daycare for my children, or will they be in the classroom?” That is truly stressful for all. To be perfectly honest, it’s maddening for many people. And so that level of uncertainty is sure to push people into their fight, flight or freeze. And it’s stress. So we need to actually be continuing to focus on people’s emotional needs, and we need to make sure that that’s a priority, because work-play balance is necessary in order to make this sustainable.

BM: Do you have any examples of schools that you feel like have done a good job of navigating through the COVID-19 crisis?

LH: There’s a couple of schools that come to mind that did better as it related to that. I know several schools who realized and recognized pretty quickly that not just teachers, but the students and families depended on them for food, depended on them for certain things. And so they enacted ways for students to be able to pick up their lunches for the week or I know in Atlanta Public Schools, they actually had the school buses deliver either the breakfast and or launch that they would normally get at school, instead of the kids having… And parents having to go to them, they used the school buses to deliver them. To make sure that their physiological needs were met and got them the technology that they needed in order to continue to engage.

And allowed their teachers to also have the technology and food and things that they needed. So they set it up from the beginning that they didn’t know how long they were gonna be in this crisis, and so they wanted to make sure that the physiological needs were met. Understanding that if physiological needs are met and safety needs are not met, then the ability to learn is slim to none. So I think there’s different schools across the country that have done great things. I think we’re… To be perfectly honest, because there’s still a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unknowns, people are just trying things out and seeing what sticks in their communities. They’re talking to the students, They’re talking to the parents. They’re talking to the teachers and figuring out what are the needs and what can we do. And they’re getting creative.

BM: Obviously, the pandemic immediately comes to mind when thinking about long-term crises, but are there any other examples of what a long-term crisis might look like?

LH: I mean, there are crises that have long-lasting impacts on students and parents and teachers and communities that… It doesn’t just end in that moment. The Flint water crisis, in the beginning, yes, there was a lot of, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on?” But there are still repercussions from that happening, and every year it’s still somewhat of a crisis situation as it relates to students, as it relates to the teachers, as it relates to what’s gonna happen, how it’s gonna happen, who’s gonna lead. All of those things. And so I think the reason why we defined crisis, not just sometimes as a single event, but a series of events or a set of circumstances is because a series of events and sets of circumstances can go on for long periods of time, and it’s still a crisis. It’s still overwhelming to the system. It’s still overwhelming and causing anxiety. It’s still an actual problem and adaptive challenge that needs to be addressed.

BM: Every crisis also presents an opportunity. An opportunity for leaders to learn and adjust their practices to prevent future crises from occurring and leading through them better when they do.

LH: Schools should be continuously adopting a resiliencing mindset. They should be thoughtfully going beyond just the detecting and analyzing the early warning signs of things and actually relentlessly learning from the threats and the crises. So part of that resiliencing, is really utilizing those crises as opportunities so that you can potentially put in what’s necessary to prevent them from happening again. The second thing is really kind of fostering concrete practices and steps through accountability and exploration. So it’s about creating an atmosphere where trust and courage thrive and pays off. So we’ve gotta be focused, right? After we look at these opportunities, we have to then look at what are the next steps and steps that we really have to do and put in place in order to prevent these things from happening again. And then leaders, the last thing is we’ve gotta insist that our schools really invest. And that we really promote reflection, learning and resiliencing.

So as a leader, it’s our role, especially in crisis navigation, to not just talk about it, but be about it, and be constantly communicating from a place of resiliencing, and growth and learning. And not a place of must, should haves, and things of that nature. So ultimately, a resiliencing approach kind of echoes the wisdom of Aristotle who said, once, “excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. And so resiliencing practices should be utilized ongoing, always, forever. It’s about a mindset. It’s about learning from every opportunity and about leading from that place of learning and growth, ongoing.

BM: We’ve talked about a lot today. How would you summarize our conversation, and what do you think are the biggest takeaways leaders need to remember when they’re dealing with a crisis?

LH: I think the summary for me is that a crisis happens. We know that a crisis, this is going to happen because it always happens. Events, a series of events and circumstances always happen. And so as leaders, we have to be prepared and proactive to the best of our ability to manage and handle those things. And so we have to recognize that everybody reacts differently to stressful situations. Not everybody’s fighters, not everybody’s flighters, not everybody’s freezers. And so we have to be flexible enough to engage with people differently depending on where they are and how they respond to the stressful situation and the crisis situation. The second thing I think is super important is that… Especially in the middle of crises… Leaders need to make sure that they are taking care of themselves, taking care of their staff, taking care of the students, and if possible, also supporting the community.

So realizing and recognizing that work-play balance and self-care is super important to sustainability of the work. And so, because sometimes we don’t know how long crises really will go on as evidenced by COVID-19, we have to be willing and flexible to know that we have to take care of us so that we can continue in the navigation of that crisis. The other thing that we have learned is… Especially when the crisis is worldwide or community… Like a community crisis… It’s important to take breaks. Take breaks from watching the news, from social media, from reading, listening. Because the constant influx of all of that information is a lot of trauma inputs and can really overwhelm our systems. It can overwhelm our anxieties and create higher levels of worry.

So not only should we be taking those breaks, we should actually be encouraging our staff, our families, our students, our parents, our communities, to also take breaks on a regular basis to give our systems time to calm and not stay at that elevated level of anxiety. Because it’s important to know that that high level of anxiety, it impacts our body. So we’ve got to take care of our bodies. It impacts our sleep. We’ve got to sleep. For many people, that also impacts their… If they wanna eat and things like that. So we’ve gotta kind of disconnect so we can take care of our bodies and make time to kind of unwind and calm.

And then I think the other thing that I would highly recommend as it relates to all things crisis navigation is make sure to build relationships. Connect with people. Checking in. Checking out. Checking on people as individuals, not just as staff, not just about the work, but as human beings. And checking in with students and families about that is super important. And listening to them so that they know that they are seen, heard, and cared about is important. That actually helps reduce the stress. Those healing relationships help reduce stress. All of those things are super important because a crisis tends to overwhelm us.

BM: Thank you for tuning in to this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website, nc2s.org. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Support was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes. And music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office, of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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26 min.

Topic Areas

Capacity Building, Mental Health, School Climate

Crisis Timeline

Crisis Management


School Personnel