We live in a time when lockdown drills are commonplace for young children, from toddlers in daycare to high school students. Parents and educators are struggling to find a way to address this reality in a way that promotes safety in an emergency—without triggering unnecessary anxiety and confusion.
This is certainly a concern for elementary age students, who can have a hard time processing what the drills mean. In Polk County, Florida, the school district requires eleven active shooter drills per school year. This practice has children “frightened to the point that they need counseling.”
But older kids are susceptible to this fear, too. In a recent New York Times article about lockdown drills and the negative psychological effects they can have on students, one Connecticut mother voiced concerns after her 15-year-old daughter requested a cell phone “to say my final goodbye” in the event a gunman entered her school. “I understand they’re trying to think about the children’s best interests,’’ she said in regard to the high school’s monthly active shooter drills. “But you can’t help but think of how it’s affecting them.”
In an interview with Scholastic, Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist at the Child Mind Institute, explained that addressing these drills with kids can give them a sense of control, which reduces anxiety. “They feel a sense of competence. They know that the teachers have a plan, and the whole thing can make them feel quite safe.” The experts at Scholastic went on to share some tips for how to address the importance of these drills with kids, without instilling fear or anxiety.
Even though preschoolers are young, parents shouldn’t skimp on details. In fact, talking through (or role playing) exactly what happens during a drill can stick in their minds in a positive way. That’s because preschoolers and kindergarteners generally love learning new procedures.
But in terms of the “why,” parents are urged to keep it simple. Be matter-of-fact, without introducing scary details about all of the possible dangers. Just make sure they understand: When they follow directions, line up, and stay silent, the teachers can do their jobs and make sure everyone is safe, just in case there’s anything dangerous going on.
Again, young kids often love learning (and showing off their knowledge of) new procedures. So reviewing exactly how the drill works is key. “Young children like to learn things, do them correctly, and receive praise for following instructions,” Dr. Howard explains. “Focusing the conversation on the procedural elements can prevent rumination and worries about why a bad thing might happen.”
Parents can talk about the reasons for drills like these, and the importance of staying silent to keep all the kids safe from someone who may want to hurt them. But it’s best to emphasize that the likelihood of someone wanting to hurt them is very rare, since they might not understand the low probability.
For upper elementary and early middle school, all of the above advice still applies. However, since these students are probably a little more aware about what could happen, it’s also important to focus on the adults who are the helpers.
Make sure they know that teachers, administrators, and staff at school are doing everything they can to keep kids safe in case of an emergency.
Teenagers have often already heard about school shootings and consumed a large amount of (often graphic) media around the subject. In those cases, often the best plan is to provide a calm, safe environment where teens can openly share their fears and concerns. Then you can discuss together ways those fears might be addressed.
At any age, parents should reassure children that school is in fact a very safe place, and that everyone has to keep practicing to make sure it stays that way. If you’ve participated in safety drills or training at work, it can be helpful to share those experiences. That way they know you’re committed to staying safe too.
Note that it’s important to talk about these drills before they happen and after they happen. Kids may still have questions or fears to address days or even weeks afterward. Talking through what they saw, how they felt, and anything they noticed that could be changed or improved to increase safety can give students a feeling of control. Addressing “what-if” scenarios and encouraging older students to stay off social media in favor of in-person conversations can help as well.
For help finding the right words, see our suggested age-by-age scripts for what to say to kids about lockdown/safety drills.