‘It shatters that sense of safety’: Psychological services to support pupils at school close to Dublin attack

Fear and anxiety likely to be among issues facing students and staff who witnessed incident or its fallout

School psychologists will be on the ground at Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square to support staff and students trying to come to terms with Thursday’s stabbing incident which left five people – including a five-year-old girl – hospitalised.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said staff from the National Education Psychological Service (Neps) are offering every support in dealing with what she described as an “unparalleled situation”.

“I think it’s almost incomprehensible to us that these young people could be going about their business in a normal everyday setting, be picked up from school, being taken to after school or be collected to go home and then this awful tragedy should occur,” she said.

Psychotherapists and clinical experts say challenges such as fear and anxiety will be all the greater given that students and staff at the 170-pupil school are likely to have witnessed the incident itself or the fallout.


“It shatters that sense of, ‘it could never happen here’,” says one professional involved in dealing with school trauma, who asked not to be identified.

“It is completely normal that pupils, or even staff or parents, are afraid that it might happen again. Simple reassurance is important, initially, to emphasise that these kinds of events are very rare and that they are safe,” said one professional, who asked not to be identified.

For Neps, so-called critical incidents – such as deaths due to violence, suicide or accident – are defined as any event that “overwhelms the normal coping mechanisms of the school”.

The primary role of the service is to advise and support teachers and other adults who work daily with students and who know them well.

“Best practice indicates that students need to be with people they know and trust,” states its official guidance document for responding to critical incidents. “It is, therefore more beneficial if school staff provide support for students as they will be around in the longer term and will be in a better position to monitor their students over the days and weeks following an incident,”

Much of its advice centres on giving the facts of the incident in an age-appropriate way, as well as advice for dealing with the media and addressing the worries of pupils and returning to normal routines as soon as possible.

Neps, however, does not provide counselling for pupils or staff. Instead, it describes its role as providing immediate, short-term support, information and advice to staff.

Dr Clare Finegan, a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, feels this is a vital and missing jigsaw piece when it comes to responding to critical incidents in schools.

In these types of events, she says, there can be layers of trauma such as shocked staff members, distressed pupils and deeply upset parents.

“Teachers are not clinical psychologists. Much of the time, they are given leaflets on how to respond, which isn’t meeting the basic fundamental needs of anyone in times of crisis,” she says. “We need a wraparound service, we need that clinical piece. It really is a huge gap and I see it myself on a regular basis.”

A challenge for school staff is around official advice to return to normality to soon, without properly addressing trauma caused by critical incidents, she says.

“The advice is to begin to return to a normal routine as soon as possible. But, who is left to pick up those groups who aren’t ready to move forward? It’s often around keeping the normal routine going, even though what’s happening is completely abnormal,” she says.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent