Challenge and response

Dealing with critical incidents in international schools

‘Critical incidents’ cause distress. Responding to them in the wrong way makes things worse. Ian Gross outlines the big issues involved for international schools.

What are ‘critical incidents’?

Critical incidents can be defined as unexpected or unforeseen situations that may involve or lead to emotional trauma, severe injury, or the death of a student or staff member. As well as any tragic harm to those affected, incidents may cause institutional embarrassment or reputational harm, leading to a decline in student numbers or temporary school closure. As the number of international schools continues to rise, it’s not a matter of if this happens, but when.


As a doctoral student, I conducted research across the greater ASEAN region, surveying over 120 international school leaders and conducting one to one interviews with nearly 20 from 13 countries.  As a result, I was able to form an understanding of how schools dealt with some 250 differing incidents and the kind of impact the incidents had on them and their school communities.

Several areas emerged from the research as being significant for helping international school leaders understand how to manage critical incidents effectively. The first was the challenge of preparation and local knowledge: critical incident policies are wonderful documents, but of no use if they do not contain relevant local information. Secondly, having the policy is part of a process and being prepared includes knowing who you can rely on, and how they will interact. Having key staff in place who know their role is therefore essential.

Where, who and what?


The research data covered a wide range of incidents and you could never write a policy to deal with them all. What did emerge was a pattern of where, who and what.

For the where, was it school community-based or not? Field trip incidents for example, are ‘school-based’, but a problem on a family trip is not school-based in the same way. However, even incidents that occur ‘outside of school’ still impact the school community, and need to be planned for.

Secondly, the who. People involved could be students, family members, staff (and their family) and also the owners of the school, whether governors or private family members. Incidents may well involve people from outside the community, but incidents become school-based once they involve members of the school community.

Finally, the what. The incidents themselves whilst numerous in scope and scale, can be broken down into four main categories:

  1. Safeguarding
  2. External & environmental
  3. Competency
  4. Loss of life.

Any incident can, of course, involve a combination of these categories and each category could be broken down further into sub-categories.

The importance of the response

It can be argued that the response to an incident in any category, can be even more important to the school than the incident itself. Critical incidents occur in circumstances beyond our control: knowing where, who and what will not prevent them. How we respond, however, mitigates further damage.

Cultural awareness and critical incidents


Multicultural awareness, global citizenship, international mindfulness are all approaches to life many international schools promote and claim to practise. Yet when a critical incident occurs, and especially when people feel emotional, threatened or vulnerable, we rely on our native, home culture to shape a response. International school leaders need to be conscious of this and also be aware of the different cultural responses and expectations of others, whether parents, students, staff or school owners.

Everybody will have a preference for their own beliefs and justifications to explain their own resposne. All members of the community can be culturally ignorant of others’ beliefs to a certain extent. Some will show empathy and want to understand, while others will simply tolerate how others are acting. Regardless of their own response, everyone looks to the school leader for direction and the school leader must be able to conduct and oversee a response that benefits all.

The importance of language

Language is an extension of culture and plays a vital role in how the school leader communicates with all stakeholders: staff, students, parents and the media. The use of language in a multilingual setting must be managed to move a community from cultural tolerance of a situation to cultural empathy. There is a choice of course to be made here – whether to use one language (typically English) or the multiple languages, to reflect the community. Each choice has its own implications.

Incident-response and school ownership

The final challenge to emerge form the research was of school ownership. Five categories of international school ownership could be identified: two were typically non-profit based, the old traditional and the alternative curriculum & ideology driven international schools and the other three were ‘for profit’:

  • Private international schools owned by host national individuals or groups.
  • The globalised elite English private schools (‘GEEPS’)
  • The multinational educational group schools (‘MEGS’).

The ‘GEEPS’ and ‘MEGS’ had the advantage of support from ‘Head Office’ and often greater legal support was available, though this was often seen as difficult to activate effectively when based in another time zone and different cultural background.

To be able to deal with incidents effectively, relationships with boards and owners need to be built to support positive outcomes.

The private international schools were often challenged by singular owners that might have their own agenda for dealing with incidents that could contradict school leaders’ views. The non-profit schools, were often led by school boards whose response could vary greatly, but in general were seen as very supportive, if not a little over protective at times. Regardless, ownership is a big factor for international school leaders. To be able to deal with incidents effectively, relationships with boards and owners need to be built to support positive outcomes.

At the end of the day . . . 


No amount of research will prevent critical incidents from occurring, but international school leaders need to be aware of four critical factors as they respond:

  1. Local challenges require local understanding
  2. Local support systems are not the same as at home
  3. Different members of your community have different expectations of outcomes which will need different cultural understanding.
  4. International schools are private institutions, which are becoming increasingly competitive and owners will want to mitigate bad publicity to ensure confidence in their school.

The chances of having to deal with a critical incident are high. As one leader said to me; “You’ll be a very, very lucky administrator if you get to retire and you haven’t had any of these things to deal with.”

Ian Gross is the Principal of Kota Kinabaulu Internatonal School 





Feature Image by: Republica on Pixabay

Support images: by geralt, Leejoann, and anncapictures on Pixabay


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