How to talk with your kids about school lockdown drills

At 9 out of 10 schools in America, there are “lockdown drills” in which teachers and students lock themselves in classrooms to prepare for a “stranger” or “intruder” event. They are a preparedness response to school shootings. The practice varies from school to school.

During a drill, teachers and students lock themselves in their classrooms, turn out the lights, shut the blinds and hide quietly together. At some schools, they do this while administers bang on the doors and shout. At other schools, students are trained to barricade doors with desks and chairs. At those schools, they also learn how to run zig-zag patterns and throw books in the air in case they come into contact with a school shooter.

Really. I am not making this up.

The way I see it, the drills have been created largely out of fear instead of rational thinking. Statistically, the chance of a student being shot and killed in school on any given day is less than 1 in 614,000,000 (which is about the same as it was since before Columbine). It’s more likely they will get shot outside of school, die traveling to or from school or die from a deadly disease or from a sports injury. As a parent, I don’t worry about my kids getting shot in school, but I do worry about school policy and the way it affects my children.

Lockdown drills are on the school calendar in addition to fire drills and tornado drills. For all drills, there is protocol training for students where the teachers teach the drill before it happens.

As I see it, there are a couple of issues regarding the lockdown drills. The first one is that the protocol training and lockdown drills themselves are traumatizing for some students, let alone actual lockdowns.

There is a movement to create schools as “trauma-sensitive” organizations, but not all schools are trained to be trauma-aware yet. In a recent 60 Minutes piece on Treating Childhood Trauma, Oprah reported that one in eight kids suffers enough trauma to “cause lasting damage,” so having trauma-sensitive schools is a good idea.

There’s a video on YouTube where an 11-year-old girl describes her experience of a real school lockdown with a teacher who had difficulty handling her own emotions. The students and teacher were terrified during the experience, only to find out that it was a false alarm triggered by a technical issue with the school clocks.

During a protocol training at one of my friend’s schools, a ten-year-old student asked, “What happens if I get shot?” And the teacher replied, “You are to play dead and wait until the authorities come while we evacuate the building.” At least one student at that school did not want to go to school the next day.

At another friend’s school, a seven-year-old girl cried and cried during the protocol training. That’s just during the training – not during the drill itself. (And I feel sorry for the teachers who are not equipped by the training to handle this level of emotions by themselves.)

After the protocol training at my school, my six-year-old boy came home and cried and told me he would have nightmares.

Lockdowns are called regularly, not just for school shooters but also if there is a potentially dangerous event taking place in the neighborhood, like if there is someone running from the police in the area.

The protocol training, lockdown drills and unnecessary “real” lockdowns can create a culture of fear and anxiety in a school. Fear and anxiety are a problem because when people are in a fearful state, it’s easier for us to hurt each other. And that brings us to the second issue regarding lockdown drills.

These drills are being treated as if they address an external problem. They are talked about in similar ways that the nuclear bomb drills were talked about when I was a kid. (Yes, during the Cold War, we had nuclear bomb drills where we hid under our desks.)

But this problem that the lockdowns are addressing is not an external threat. It is internal: the shooters are our students. Gun control is needed, yes, but this is also a systemic issue that we all can work on addressing, at home and at school.

(I do not recommend sharing the information above with your child.)

So, how do we treat this as an internal problem and minimize trauma, fear and anxiety for our kids?

With deliberate conversations. These conversations will help create a caring culture and emotionally intelligent kids. There are two parts.

PART ONE: Teach emotional intelligence.

Sometimes, anxiety causes us to think that honoring our feelings isn’t important, but being emotionally intelligent can help us to relieve anxiety, make wise choices, to lead others, have healthy relationships, and even become more efficient with our bodies and minds. (Being emotionally intelligent can help our kids have better test scores and be better in competition too.)

So, regarding school lockdowns, here is how we can begin to teach our kids emotional intelligence:

“How do you feel about the upcoming lockdown drill? (Or) How did you feel during the lockdown? Did you notice what others were feeling?”

Some kids won’t have words to describe their feelings, but they may be able to describe sensations in their bodies. For example: an upset stomach, shakiness, sensitivity to sound or touch, tense muscles, sweating, heat or cold, clenched jaw, a change in breathing or racing heartbeat. All kids benefit from talking about what emotions feel like in their bodies. Help them connect their body’s sensations with the words to describe their emotions.

For a child who doesn’t have the emotional word for the body sensation, make a guess about their emotion and suggest some words to describe the feeling: “When you feel an upset stomach in that situation, that might mean you feel nervous or scared.” For a child who has the emotional word ask, “When you feel that way, where do you feel it in your body?”

Then, let them know that they are normal. All feelings are normal.

Next, talk about how it’s important to feel their feelings.

“When we don’t feel our feelings, when we try to stuff them down, it’s like putting a cap on a steamy volcano over and over. Eventually those emotions need to get out, and it’s better to let off a little steam at a time instead of having an explosion, like a moment when all of those feelings pour out and we get really mad or sad or fearful.”

Finally, talk about healthy things a child can do when they feel tough emotions like sadness, fear or anger. If you think it’s appropriate for your child, you could show them this Mister Rogers video where he talks about being the “Master of the mad that you feel.” He talks about how he used to allow himself to feel anger by playing the piano.

It’s good to teach our kids how to feel all feelings (even the good ones) in healthy ways, without hurting ourselves or anybody else. We can dance when we feel good, we can get hugs when we feel sad, and we can throw a ball when we feel mad. And, it always helps to identify and talk about our feelings and why we are feeling that way.

When appropriate, you can practice and model emotional intelligence for your own feelings with your child. (It’s good for parents to be emotionally intelligent too.)

PART TWO: Create a caring culture.

Here are some talking points: “You are at a school where people care about you. What are some ways that you all care for each other? During the lockdown drill, did you notice some people caring for each other?” And, if a child is concerned about the possibility of a real lockdown: “During a real lockdown, that’s what will happen too: everyone is going to work hard to take care of each other.”

Here are three simple steps we can all take to create a caring culture for our kids. Teach them this for school. Practice it at home too.

The first step is to identify that you or someone else is experiencing some tough emotions, that someone is having a hard day. Second, talk about it. Third, do something to feel the feeling in a healthy way. Basically, it looks like this:

If you’re having some tough emotions, tell someone about it: “I’m not feeling very good today. I want to talk about it and then I want to do something about it, like get a hug or throw a ball.”

If you notice that someone is a hard day, tell them: “I notice that you’re not feeling very good today. Wanna talk about it and then do something, like get a hug from me or throw a ball?”

So that’s it.

A conversation about feelings, and a conversation about caring culture. Two ways we can address some of the systemic issues that fuel school shootings.

Maybe someday these conversations will happen in nine out of ten schools.  For lockdown drills, they could be written into protocol scripts to guide teachers and help students feel their emotions and care for each other during a potentially nerve-racking time.

Not sure if your school has lockdown drills? Ask. Find out what the drill looks like at your school. Ask if the staff has been trained in trauma awareness too. If you’re interested, see if you can get involved in the process (protocols are often created at district level). Maybe you could ask to be on site during a training or drill to learn more. If they freak you or your kids out, see if they can opt-out and wait elsewhere in the school while the drill is taking place.

The good news is that even if your kid is freaked out by a drill, having this debrief conversation with them will help them to become a healthy adult, and there’s no time limit – even long after an upsetting event, these conversations can make a difference. We can’t protect our children from encountering tough emotional situations, but we can teach them how to identify and feel their emotions in healthy ways.

Would you like more information?

There is a lot of information about lockdown drills on the internet. Here is one article I recommend.

I’m not the only one talking about this. A bunch of PdDs got together and wrote a “Call to Action” about having a systemic approach to preventing school shootings. Their top two items are gun control and creating an emotionally safe school.

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