As adults responsible for children’s safety, parents and teachers of preschool age children need to know and to practice what we would do in case of an emergency. Fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills and, sadly, lockdown drills are an essential part of planning how to keep children safe.
But… how do we talk to children age 3 – 5 about what we’re doing and why?
My general approach to talking to young children about scary topics, is to:
- talk about how likely something is to happen
- talk about how we would know it was happening
- teach children what they themselves can do to make it better and
- explain what the adults will do to make it better.
I use this approach when doing fire drills and earthquake drills. (Read this post for all the details on how I talk with children about earthquakes.) A key point is that when you talk about the possible dangers of these emergencies, keep it gentle. The goal is to Prepare Not Scare. For example, I want them prepared by knowing that in an earthquake they need to drop down to their hands and knees because otherwise they might get knocked over and I want them to know to cover their heads / necks in case things are falling. That is information that will help to keep them safe. I do not tell them that buildings can fall down and people can die. That’s really scary and doesn’t build their ability to take safe actions.
So, that’s information I share if I know the drill is coming. However, at some facilities, they do drills without warning the staff. (The idea is that the drill is more realistic if we’re not all prepped and ready for a drill.) If I’m lucky, I have already done a pre-planned drill with this group of children so we have had a chance to talk about this before. But once, I got surprised by an unexpected drill with a group of children on their second day of class when they were still getting to know the classroom and the teachers.
In that case, we just execute all the steps of our drill, and then move on. In a class with three and four year olds, I would typically just resume the day’s activities. If they seemed unfazed by it, I wouldn’t talk it through with the whole class, but if individual kids had questions, I would answer them. With older children, I might sit them down and explain more in the moment. If you are a parent who knows that your child did a drill that day, just be aware of it. Some children will never go back and ask “why did we do that thing?” If they don’t ask, and don’t seem to have any concerns about it, I don’t worry about it. If they ask questions, or seem worried about something, then talk it through.
If they have questions or concerns about the possible emergency, such as about a fire, then I explain more details, in a realistic but non-scary way. If they have questions or concerns about why we do drills, I explain that grown-ups are responsible for keeping kids safe if an emergency happens. And the whole trick with an emergency is that we don’t know when it will happen, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.
I explain that we have to have some plans we’ve practiced in advance, just in case. Our fire drills help us practice – what if we all needed to get out of the building quickly. Our earthquake drills help us practice – what if we all need to stop moving and stay where we are. Lockdown drills help us practice – what if something dangerous was happening outside, and we all needed to gather together inside where we could all keep an eye on each other. Drills are all about practicing – listening to the grown-ups and doing what they ask you to do quickly. And we’ll probably never need to use those emergency skills, but if we do, we have all practiced them and will know how they work.
My approach to lockdown drills is a little different than natural disaster situations. I do NOT explain why we would do a lockdown. I just say “if it seems like something dangerous may be happening outside the classroom, sometimes it is safest to stay in the classroom.” I don’t talk about bad guys and guns and bullets and so on. I do not want the children in my care to be fearful that people are dangerous and that a shooting is imminent or inevitable. I want them to feel safe in their world.
[I do acknowledge that I have some privilege here – I teach in a quiet suburb of a liberal city in a state with tighter gun control laws than many other states. Your environment and needs may differ.]
Now, I might not have talked about bad guys and guns, but sometimes one of the children will! Then I can address that yes, sometimes people do bad things that harm others, including using guns. But I can go back to my message of: how likely is it to happen here – not likely. What do we do to protect ourselves? Exactly what we’re doing.
How to Talk to YOURSELF about lockdown drills…
I totally understand that you, as a parent or teacher, may have a lot of anxiety of your own about school shootings, and a lot of fear where you’ve played through in your head – “what if it happened at my child’s school.” Running a lockdown drill as a teacher, or knowing as a parent that your child participated in a lockdown drill may bring that all up for you.
I would encourage you to do some processing of your own concerns, reaching out to other parents, teachers, or therapists for support as needed so that you can get to a place where you can be calm when talking to your child about these things (or at least put on a good act of being calm). During our unexpected lockdown drill, I was grateful that I am able to remain calm in these sorts of situations and focus on getting through the mechanics of a drill without going down my personal rabbit hole of “what ifs.”
Here are some articles you may find helpful:
- How Parents Can Cope with Anxiety after School Shootings
- School shootings: how parents can cope with their own fears
- How to Cope with the latest school shooting if you’re a parent
More about Talking with Your Child
If you want more ideas for how to have these conversations, I find this article Talking to Kids about School Lockdown Drills has some really helpful modeling of what to say. For example: “Even though we might hear about it when something like this happens in a school, there are thousands and thousand and thousands of schools where it never happens and it’s never going to happen. So nothing bad is likely to happen at our school. The school is all set up to keep you safe and the principal and the teachers… have all kinds of ideas and plans to protect your school and keep anyone bad away. … You’re practicing to be safe. That’s really important. … When you practice something enough, then you don’t even have to think about it. We practice [safety] all the time, like stopping at a corner and looking both ways before we step into the street.”
That article also has this really helpful description of understanding and calming anxiety: “Let me tell you why you feel so weird when you’re scared. There are two parts to your brain. One feels your feelings… The other part thinks. …When you get scared, you sometimes forget to take good breaths. And … your brain, which is hungry for the good oxygen… gets worried, too. … It thinks it’s supposed to panic and get you ready to run away! … Your heart is probably feeling like it’s racing as it sends out energy and blood to your arms and legs so you can run. But you’re not going to run, so there you are, just wondering why you feel like this, why your muscles feel tight. Your body takes energy away from your belly … so you feel those butterflies there…. you might feel dizzy. … But you can tell that part of your brain, the part that does the thinking, that you’re safe and okay. … By taking some good, oxygen-filled breaths, so nice and big that you fill your belly… Imagine that you’re blowing out candles on your birthday cake. You could even put up one finger and pretend it’s a candle you’re blowing out. And then when you’re good and empty of air, your body and brain want to fill up again with oxygen, so you’ll take a lovely breath in. And your brain starts to feel calm again. And when the brain is calm, your body can calm down, too. Like magic. Do it with me.”