Managing Complex Needs During a School Emergency

by | 9 Jun 2023

Not all emergencies are the same, so emergency response procedures are created to accommodate different scenarios. However, it is essential that emergency response procedures also accommodate people with complex needs.

For example, managing complex needs during a school emergency requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all teachers and students.

This article will discuss complex needs considering students with mental and neurodivergent challenges, including ADHD, autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, and anxiety.

Raising Children confirms that “About 1 in 5-6 children have variations in their brain development. These variations include those seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and dyslexia. These children can be described as neurodivergent”.Furthermore, the Young Minds Matter survey, as part of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, has found that anxiety and ADHD were the most common disorders (7.0% and 6.3% respectively) among young people aged between 12 and 17.

Students rely on authoritative figures, including teachers and emergency personnel, to help them during school emergencies. So, how can they help students with more complex needs during these times? 

Potential issues that may arise during a school emergency

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) uses findings by McLean in the research paper, Supporting Children with Neurodiversity to discuss difficulties with sensory processing in children with neurodiversity. These difficulties can lead to fatigue, poor attention, overwhelm, panic and behavioural issues as they attempt to avoid sensory triggers (including touch and sound), making concentration and alertness particularly difficult.

The table below, adapted from McLean and sourced from AIFS, provides an overview of difficulties with sensory processing in children and resulting behaviour:

School Emergency

In addition, describes Dyslexia as a neurobiological condition that affects the part of the brain that processes language, while explains that Dyslexia is the most common learning difficulty impacting between 5-10 per cent of people. 

During a school emergency, the above challenges may create the following issues when managing a student with complex needs and should be addressed in the emergency response procedure: 

  • Defiant responses to evacuation tones and/or lockdown announcements may create a state of anxiety, panic, and outbursts, particularly in students that experience over-sensitivity to sensory input. 
  • Overwhelm and panic with heightened, unfamiliar activity and people. 
  • Verbal or physical resistance to instructions.
  • Slow reaction times to instructions in students that experience under-reactivity to one or more forms of sensory input. These students may need help registering sensory information.
  • Difficulty maintaining optimal calm and an alert state in children that find it challenging to regulate stimulation levels. 
  • Sustaining attention and concentration.
  • Inability to effectively read and process emergency information.

All the above may put other teachers, students, and emergency personnel at additional risk if not planned for and managed appropriately.

Possible solutions to manage complex needs during a school emergency

Raising Children further discusses, in a general sense, how schools can embrace neurodiversity and adjust to accommodate neurodiverse students. This includes changes to the environment for children with sensitivities and high levels of anxiety, diverse teaching methods to suit different learning styles and needs, and support for all students to include neurodiverse children in interactions and play.

It is imperative, however, that schools also adjust for and accommodate students with complex needs in their emergency response procedure. 

The AIFS uses a report by Delgado-Lobete et al., 2020 that states when using professionals and adults, children can be supported to develop self-regulation by modifying the external environment to avoid triggers and facilitate self-regulation with behavioural and communications strategies.

Considering the points discussed above, these strategies may include:

1 – Implementing Social Stories™ 

Also known as social scripts, social narratives and story-based interventions, Social Stories were created by Carol Gray to help autistic children learn ways of behaving in particular situations.

Used in conjunction with other therapies, Social Storiescan help to point out the following in an emergency using short descriptions and images:

  • Details about different emergency situations
  • Different things that happen can happen in these situations
  • The behaviour or action that is typically expected from people in each situation

2 – Developing Personal Plans

Individualised emergency plans (IEPs), or personal plans, should be developed for students with complex needs and be included in the emergency response procedure.

These plans must include specific protocols for emergency processes, triggers and supports, and alternative communication strategies with parents, emergency services, and relevant support agencies.

Alternative communication methods, such as visual, audio or tactile systems, are important to ensure that emergency information is effectively understood and managed.

All protocols in the personal plans should specifically address the student’s unique needs and the recommended behavioural and communications strategies for those needs. 

Regularly reviewing and updating these personal plans is essential to reflect any changes in the student’s needs or abilities. 

3 – Creating specialised emergency kits

Creating specialised pre-prepared emergency kits for students with complex needs can be a practical initiative to help them during an emergency.

Depending on their unique needs, the emergency kit may include:

  • Easy-to-follow instructions explicitly written for the student in a way that they understand what to do in an emergency. The way the instructions are written is crucial to the student’s individual needs; for example, a student with dyslexia may require the ‘three tier’ approach to instruction, and a student with ASD may require Social Stories. 
  • Fidget toys which aid in self-regulation and provide sensory input in a less distracting way. They may help improve concentration by allowing the student’s brain to filter out the extra sensory information and better tolerate boredom, anxiety and hyperstimulation. 
  • Noise-cancelling or noise-reducing headphones to help block out overwhelming noise and sensory stimuli, providing a sense of calm and focus, and in some cases, help to communicate better. 
  • List of support personnel including the contact details of the student’s parents, psychologist, other doctors, and special needs teacher. 

4 – Staff training and awareness

In addition to regular emergency management training, school staff should receive additional specialised training covering topics such as awareness around special needs, communications strategies, and appropriate adaptations.

It is vital that staff are aware of the individual students with complex needs and be familiar with their unique behavioural and communications strategies. 

5 – Collaborating with external agencies

Collaborating (before, during and after an emergency) with emergency services, support organisations, and health professionals will ensure an aligned, effective approach during emergencies.

These agencies can provide valuable guidance based on their specialist expertise, resources, and training to support students with complex needs.

It is recommended that a complete list of these agencies and their contact details be included in the emergency response procedure.

6 – Providing additional staff and wardens

Developing an inclusive emergency response procedure that considers the unique needs of students with complex needs may involve assigning additional staff members and wardens to assist those students during an emergency. 

These additional staff and wardens should be appointed to a specific student and trained in each of these students’ specific needs and strategies.

7 – Providing post-emergency support

After an emergency, provide appropriate support and counselling services to students and staff members who may have been affected. This is particularly important for students with complex needs who may experience heightened anxiety or trauma.

8 – Undertaking regular drills

Undertaking regular emergency drills and practice scenarios, including specific considerations for students with complex needs, will assist in familiarising staff and students with complex needs with what is required and different agreed strategies to better cope during a real emergency.

These drills should regularly evaluate and revise emergency response procedures based on feedback, lessons learned, and changes in regulations or best practices.

Do you have an experience you would like to share?

If you have an example situation and tips on how you managed it effectively, please leave us a comment! 

Please get in touch to learn more about how Bounce Readiness can prepare your school to manage complex needs during an Emergency.


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