How Teachers and Parents Can Talk to Young Children About Intruder Drills
It is unfortunate that school shootings in the United States are so rampant that our schools must now include Intruder Drills as part of the rehearsed safety drills each school year. It is terrifying to think about any type of disaster where our children and caregivers are endangered, but especially so when it would be at the hands of another person. Just as we gain “muscle memory” and a sense of control and preparedness from other types of safety drills, such as fire and tornado drills, providing intruder drills can help accomplish this as well. Here are six tips for talking about and providing these drills in a way that prepares children and gives them space to process it.
- Limit your child’s exposure to traumatic content. While we do want children to be aware of dangers in the world, we want to present it in a way that both builds empathy and knowledge while also developing a sense of agency. Depending on your child’s age, emotional resilience, and awareness of their surroundings, they may or may not know about school shootings. Every child’s ability to comprehend and manage the emotions around something as tragic as a school shooting vary. To determine whether or not to share news of such events with your child, parents should consider if telling their child about a traumatic event would flood the child with fear and contribute to helplessness or if they could manage the feelings in healthy ways and grow a sense of control and preparedness. As parents, it is your job to protect them from media that shows violence such as this and to guard what is presented to them. This protection includes turning the television off when events are being covered by the news and being aware of their presence when you talk about events such as intruders and school shootings.
- Use developmentally appropriate language to explain what is happening. Should you decide to share with your child about violent events in the world and community, use language and words that they will understand at their age of development. Most kids understand “choices” language – that everyone makes choices and that sometimes our choices are respectful of others and at other times they are not. You could give examples such as when a child chooses to wait their turn versus taking a toy from someone else or when a grown-up chooses to yell versus talk calmly. Explaining that a grown up “chose” to hurt others is something a child would understand, depending on their age and development.
- Focus on words like ‘Safety,’ ‘Rehearsal,’ ‘Stranger,’ and ‘Likelihood.’ Teachers and parents who are discussing intruder drills with children at home or at school can focus on the safety that these drills would create. In fact, you may describe all drills (fire, tornado, intruder) as safety drills, since they understand what those drills are and have practiced them before. Parents and teachers can explain this drill and that the likelihood of a stranger entering their school is really low by saying “An intruder is someone who is not supposed to be in a certain place. It would be like a stranger coming in to our school. A stranger coming into our school probably won’t happen, but we practice and rehearse being safe so we are prepared for anything that might happen.” Explaining it this way is honest, age appropriate, and focuses on agency – what everyone can do to stay safe. Likening this safety measure to other safety precautions they already take, such as wearing helmets on bikes or wearing seatbelts in the car, allows them to connect this new safety drill to something with which they are already familiar. School-aged children are also likely to understand the word rehearsal for safety drills.
- Demonstrate that grown-ups are in charge. Explaining to children that grown ups are in charge of keeping them safe and that it’s the grown-ups job to have a plan for unsafe situations communicates to them that they are cared for. Having a clear plan that is practiced during these drills shows children that the grown-ups know what to do. While completing these drills may seem like they could scare children (and they could indeed cause some anxiety, depending on how they are handled and talked about), experiencing a calm, smooth drill experience can actually communicate to children that they are in a safe place because it shows them that the grown-ups who are charge know what to do. And since they’ve practiced it with them, they also know what to do.
- Play it out. This one might surprise you, but here’s the thing: children learn through play. For toddlers and preschoolers, playing “hide-and-seek” to practice this safety drill may be an effective way for them to learn, rehearse, and prepare for an intruder. For older children who understand what safety drills are, allowing them to play out a rehearsal of this drill may allow them to take it more seriously should you ever experience a real intruder situation. Children sense the emotions in the room. This is a scary topic. By allowing children to play out an intruder drill it gives them the opportunity to release their full range of emotions during the rehearsal. Sometimes stress is released through laughing and silliness. After the rehearsal, teachers could ask questions about how they were feeling during the rehearsal and if there’s anything they would do differently in a real intruder situation. Teachers could practice a “silly” version and a “serious” version of the safety drill to clarify what would be expected. This repeated play sequence gives kids a chance to work through all their emotions while learning the plan. During these drills, asking kids to practice following instructions, using their listening ears, “catching a bubble” to remain quiet, and waiting for the helpers to come can all be accomplished playfully. While waiting in the drill, teaching them playful and connected ways to manage their emotions would also be beneficial. Teachers could guide them in practicing holding one another’s hands for collective courage, taking big, slow breaths with one another, and even giving hugs to remain patient, quiet, and calm during the drill.
- Allow, Answer, and Accept questions and feelings after the drills. These drills are sure to bring up both questions and big feelings for the grown-ups involved and children. It’s important to create time and space for these questions to be asked and for parents and teachers to answer them in a developmentally appropriate way. Although it would sometimes feel more comfortable to avoid or minimize questions about intruders, NOT answering questions or talking about something that they’re worried about could actually exasperate anxiety and fear. By not talking about something a child is worried about, parents and teachers send the message that that topic is so scary, not even my grown-ups can talk about it. As we know, children need to understand that the grown-ups in their life are in charge and can handle what is happening. This contributes to feelings of safety. Providing honest answers and giving space for however the child is feeling to be expressed is important for not only the child’s well being but also in their ability to prepare for an event such as an intruder in their school.
There is so much gratitude and love for teachers who care for our children and do such valuable work such as safety drills for the unthinkable. May these tips help all of us prepare ourselves and our children for an event that will not happen. And may we find ways to make change in our communities and country to provide the protection our children deserve.
***Lacey Ryan, LMFT, RPT-S is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator who provides trainings, workshops, and in-services for parents and organizations who work with children on topics such as emotional resilience, positive caregiving skills, play therapy, and mental and behavioral health. To learn more, visit https://www.creativefamilycounseling.org/educational-in-services/.