8.6 Coping with Crisis


What Is It?

Each Early Head Start (EHS) or Head Start (HS) agency should establish protocols for coping with various kinds of crises. As part of the home visitor’s orientation training, you should have the opportunity to learn relevant policies and procedures and practice the skills involved in managing a crisis. The home visitor should know who the agency’s community partners are and how to and when to contact them. You should have emergency phone numbers for the management team at your agency.

A crisis is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger that may cause family tensions and imbalance to rise. A crisis may require a very quick intervention for the safety of the family. Family members may become overwhelmed, immobilized, frightened, and unpredictable. However, they may also be open to new approaches to solving problems. With the right tools, a crisis may provide an opportunity for both you and the family to make significant, positive changes. While home visitors are frequently called on to respond to crisis in their interactions with families, they are not operating alone and should work with the management team when helping families manage a crisis.

Crisis intervention is guided by six goals that influence decisions about EHS/HS’s role with a family in crisis and aim to stabilize and strengthen the family. Major goals include the following:

  • Identify and understand the crisis-triggering event(s); 

  • Relieve the acute symptoms of stress being experienced by the family and individual family members (this step might best be taken by police or other community agencies); 

  • Restore the family and family members to their best precrisis levels of functioning or better; 

  • Identify the steps the family, EHS/HS staff, and community resource providers can take to remedy the crisis; 

  • Establish a connection between the family’s current situation and past experiences; and 

  • Support the family’s use of new ways of coping with stressful situations (which can include referrals for mental health consultation).

(Adapted from Responding to Families in Crisis, National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement)

How To

You support a family in crisis by:

  • recognizing the signs of high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and domestic violence, and observing and verifying potentially dangerous situations (e.g., guns in the house, violent outbursts);

  • recognizing potential stressors such as a sudden loss of a job or unexpected expenses, violence in the neighborhood, or sudden natural disasters (e.g., floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, fire, and tornadoes);

  • having partnerships with local agencies and faith-based organizations that provide crisis intervention and ensuring that these agencies will provide culturally appropriate services, such as homeless shelters, women’s shelters, domestic violence shelters, food banks, and health clinics;

  • having protocols and training in your program for how to respond to different kinds of crises;

  • keeping the family safe while recognizing that your first responsibility is to keep yourself safe;

  • having culturally relevant response plans and services in place,

  • using a strengths-based approach as you help the family figure out what they want and how they might achieve it;

  • maintaining your professional boundaries and supporting the family within the protocols and practices defined by your agency; and

  • having information and resources available to assist staff and families after a crisis. It may be useful for family members or for staff to speak with a mental health consultant after a crisis or read information about common reactions to crisis.

Learn More

A crisis is a period of heightened family tension and imbalance that requires quick staff identification. Head Start staff who work with families will find this information useful in understanding what brings about crises for families. Just as a crisis is an opportunity for a family, it is also an opportunity for staff to make a real difference in the life of a Head Start family.


Several variables are considered when addressing the mental health needs of infants, toddlers, and their parents. EHS and Migrant Head Start staff learn strategies for providing quality infant mental health services. Program Performance Standards and resources are included.


These assessment tools are designed to help family workers identify signs and symptoms of substance misuse and abuse, mental health issues, or domestic violence in families. Organization leadership, managers, and family workers can use these tools to assess the presence of high-risk behaviors, understand trends among families served, and determine next steps for building partnerships and providing supports. A simple assessment tool is an invaluable resource for front-line workers in conducting brief screenings that address high-risk behaviors and the need for ongoing support.


The Interactive Homelessness Lessons were designed to strengthen the knowledge and skills of all staff who work with families experiencing homelessness. The lessons include useful strategies, compelling parent stories, experiences, and lessons learned shared by Head Start and Early Head Start programs as well as local education agencies, liaisons for homeless persons, sample documents, and much more. The lessons may be used in a variety of professional development settings and will assist service providers in their planning to increase opportunities for families experiencing homelessness.


In the wake of the September 11, 2001, tragedy and the devastating hurricanes in the southern states, programs continue to be challenged to provide stability, security, and support to children and families. In reality, children and families across the country experience trauma from less publicized community events on a daily basis. What can program staff do to provide optimal support to children and families? In this audio cast, faculty from programs like yours discuss their real-life experiences with community trauma as they highlight principles for practice in working with families and young children affected by catastrophic events.


Many Head Start families in crisis are dealing with an array of challenges. Head Start staff who work with families should develop planned responses for stabilizing families in crisis. Concrete and practical services (e.g., arranging for child care, providing transportation, and having a telephone installed or reconnected) lessen pressures for families in crisis and free family energy for working on other issues.


Older children and adults are affected by exposure to violence, but it is a common belief that young children are not completely aware of their surroundings and remain unaffected. This belief is a myth—children are affected by their exposure to violence but often lack the ability to cope. Family services, parent involvement, and other social services staff may use this resource to design programs to help young children cope with traumatic events.