As an RA, I remember the intense fear I felt upon being told that we would have multiple days of crisis response training.
Now, as a supervisor, my RAs feel similarly.
But, as I tell my students, this fear — of messing something up in responding to a crisis — is natural. In fact, it’s an essential element of crisis response. Our fear and anxiety show that we recognize the severity of the situation.
Below, I’ll share some tips to help you train students on crisis response. The goal of these tips is to help our students better understand why we train them for these situations. We want to empower them to show up when it might feel easier to hide away.
1. Create a crisis response manual.
This can be an extremely helpful guide for your student leaders and will help them to feel more prepared heading into any situation. Your guide can be a condensed version of the policies and protocols you trained them on in RA training. Be sure to include a list of possible situations along with a flow chart showcasing the proper responses.
Be sure to also include guidelines about when to “call up”, along with the appropriate numbers to dial. These numbers should include professional staff, graduate student staff, campus partners, and local crisis hotlines. This call-up list will give the RA a chance to ask for help if they’re having a hard time with the situation themselves.
Super tip: Ask your student staff for feedback on the manual. What else would they like to see included in it? Involving your RAs will allow them to help create their own resources, which, in turn, should help foster buy-in.
Consider also making the manual different than a typical piece of paper (which they are likely to be getting plenty of during training). You can make it on thick cardstock or on colored paper, or print in on half sheets to make it easier to spot within the rest of their handouts.
This can also be a digital manual, but the benefits of it being a physical copy is that RAs can take it with them when they are on duty and keep one behind their front desk to refer to whenever a crisis situation arises.
2. Let them practice in a safe space.
Behind Closed Doors (BCD) is a popular training in which professional and/or graduate student staff play out mock scenarios of real situations that students may encounter. It allows RAs to practice encountering these scenarios with people they know and trust who are going through the same training as them.
One great way to run a BCD is by creating small groups of RAs and entrusting a Lead or returning RA to facilitate each one. New RAs may feel more comfortable asking questions and expressing their uncertainty and worry to a peer rather than their new supervisor.
Be sure to provide the students leading each group with a set of expectations, along with follow-up questions that they can pose to trainees. Finally, ensure that they feel prepared to answer trainees’ questions correctly.
Super tip: It’s important to preface this training with your staff as it could be extremely anxiety-inducing. Inform your team of all the types of scenarios they’ll be asked to respond to, answer any lingering questions they may have about policies/protocols, remind them of their crisis response manual, and ask returning RAs who have been through BCDs to talk about their experience.
Remind your new RAs that BCDs are not meant to test them; rather, mock scenarios are meant to help them meet their fear of encountering tricky situations. It’s meant to create a safe place for them to make mistakes, so they can learn and gain confidence in their skills.
3. Remind them that 99% of crisis response is about showing up.
This is something I find myself reiterating to my student leaders after every crisis response debriefing.
Almost every debriefing conversation I’ve had with an RA has begun with them worrying about what they “did wrong.” They wonder how they messed up and worry about how they’re going to handle the next crisis that comes their way.
But they fail to value their mere presence; they were there with that student in what could be one of the worst or most traumatic experiences of their lives. Because of them, a student in crisis wasn’t alone.
This reassurance may not take away all of the anxiety our student leaders are feeling about responding to a student — especially one in a particularly dire situation related to sexual assault, domestic violence, or suicidal ideation (just to name a few examples). But, it reminds them that knowing all the answers isn’t the most important thing; simply being there for a student in crisis is far more important.
4. Debrief with challenge, support, and follow up.
In the previous tip, I talked about how in our debrief conversations with our student leaders, they usually ask themselves what they could have done better. This is always a good question to ask ourselves in any situation we encounter. When our students are asking themselves that, without our prompting, it shows they want to learn and grow.
If they did make an undeniable mistake according to your guidelines, such as not calling a professional staff member for a serious incident, talk with them about why they made that choice. Ask them to run through the situation with you and to reflect on what they could have done differently.
If, per your accountability structure, their behavior means they need to be placed on an action plan or probation, talk with them about the reasoning behind that. Remember that those pieces of accountability are learning tools — even if that’s not always how they’re perceived.
Now, let’s talk follow up. Crisis response trainings tend to be a particularly anxiety-inducing part of RA training. So, it’s important for you to take the time to follow up individually with each of your staff after these sessions.
Make sure you are familiar with your team, so that if you notice that someone is upset or acting differently than usual, you can follow up with them. This will help you to build a stronger rapport that will last throughout the year. They’ll know you care because you checked in. This can also help you in later holding them accountable, should you need to do so.
After placing a student on an action plan or probation, it’s also important to follow up with them on that. Utilize it as a learning opportunity by doing some mock scenarios in your one-on-ones and asking them to look back and reflect further on the situation a couple of weeks later.
Finally, remember that the follow up isn’t just on you! Remind your student leaders to also follow up with the students involved in the situations they handle. Doing so will help students going through crises feel supported and seen. Residents can feel unsure of how to act around an RA who responded to them when they were in a vulnerable position, so the RA breaking that ice is incredibly important.
Crisis response is such an important piece of the training we provide to our student leaders. The skills and knowledge you’re providing them will still continue to be invaluable long after they end their positions and graduate.
Remaining calm in high-stress situations, showing empathy, learning about differences, and self reflection are just some of the valuable skills our crisis response trainings can and should provide.
Remember, we want to empower our students to be able to take hold of the fear within them and channel it to provide thoughtful and resourceful responses to crises. Utilize that fire instead of trying to put it out!