What does it mean to debrief after an incident occurs? - Autism Awareness
Educator and family debrief after an incident at school.

What does it mean to debrief after an incident occurs?

Most schools and organizations engage in reflective practice. After an incident occurs, we try to answer some questions about about an incident: What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved? Why did it happen? How did it happen? How are we going to deal with it if it happens again?  While these are important questions to answer, there is another necessary piece missing – the emotional outcomes that we experience when dealing with behaviors of concern.

Behaviors of concern can stir up all kinds of emotions in us such as fear, annoyance, revulsion, frustration or even anger. All of these emotions and more are normal and professionally acceptable ways to feel, but they need to be managed. Left unresolved these emotions can have a negative outcome on our well-being and could even affect our judgement in reflective practice.

Early in my teaching career when I was a substitute teacher, I was working at a school and had an incident with a 14 year old student. Due to being a substitute, I didn’t know the student’s background or difficulties. Immediately following the incident, the principal asked me to write a report about it. Because I was so upset, young, and lacked experience, I wrote a report full of emotion. The principal reprimanded me and told me to redo the report with no emotion in it. I was never given any support or way to resolve my own feelings about what happened. Decades later, I still think about that student from time to time and feel like I failed her. There was a better way to handle the situation to support reflective practice, understand, and resolve my own emotions.

One of the best ways to manage feelings is through debriefing. This is an opportunity for us to express our feelings and emotions about an incident or behavior with a colleague in a safe environment. If we are going to do this, there has to be a few rules.

5 Rules of Debriefing

For debriefing to be successful and restore well-being, we need to follow these 5 rules.

  1. Confidential – Debriefing is ‘casual’ and not physically recorded in any way. We need to be free to express negative thoughts and feelings without fear of consequences later. The only exception to this rule is when a specific safeguarding issue is raised during a debrief.
  2. 1:1 – Debriefing is a one to one activity and not done in a group. Talking should be done with a colleague to uphold any confidentiality policies, but the person doesn’t have to be in a specific role. It should be someone you feel comfortable talking to.
  3. ASAP – Debriefing should take place immediately after an incident, but this isn’t always possible. Even if we have to wait, it should be done before the end of the work day. It’s important not to carry the incident home with you and continue to think about it.
  4. Take as long as you need. There should never be time limits on debriefing because every person and situation will be different. Never look at debriefing as an opportunity to waste time or have an extended break.
  5. Your time to talk. Debriefing is your time to talk and express your feelings so typically, one person will be listening while the other person talks.

The Role of the Listener

If you are in the role of the listener, don’t pass judgement on what the person is saying or how they are saying it. While we may not agree with someone else’s views or feelings, we shouldn’t express or show our disapproval as it’s unlikely to lead to a successful debrief for them.

As the listener, we want to demonstrate active listening so that the other person feels like they are being heard. We should be actively giving both verbal and (even more importantly) non-verbal cues to show that we are engaged and attentive to what the other person is saying.

Demonstrate active listening through:

  1. Eye contact – Have you ever tried talking to someone who isn’t looking at you, maybe glancing down at their phone, or looking around? It can be hard to keep talking.
  2. Body language – Do you look alert and engaged or disinterested? Are you facing the speaker? Is your body language open and neutral?
  3. Vocal cues – These are the sounds that let someone know we have heard them. Ex. Ah-ha, yes.
  4. Physical cues – These are movements like nodding your head “yes”.

After the Debrief

After completing the debrief and dealing with the emotional consequences, we need to reflect. Think about which approaches were successful and which ones weren’t. Share this information with others; sometimes positive approaches are missed because we didn’t think they were important or didn’t think to share them. Once these positive approaches have been shared, record them and make them part of the future plan.

If we aren’t reflective and debrief, what are the long term consequences?

The Low Arousal Approach is reflective practice and one that involves debriefing. If we don’t reflect, strong negative emotions can build towards the people we support. These negative feelings can result in something called malignant alienation. This term was first coined by Morgan in 1979. It refers to the progressive deterioration of a therapeutic relationship, when a practitioner effectively starts to dislike the individual they are supporting. It is often accompanied by a reduction in the sympathy and level of support provided.

By being reflective, proactive, and taking preventative steps such as debriefing after an incident, we can better manage negative emotions as they come up. We are human beings and it’s normal to get upset when things go wrong or awry. Support is needed to process strong feelings. We also need to develop a deeper understanding of the individuals that we support.  For example, learn about their communication style, sensory needs, interests, strengths, and triggers.  This understanding is the cornerstone of building a positive relationship and trust, which are essential components of fostering well-being.

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