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Gun Violence and Children: How to Talk to Young Children About Active Shooter Drills (Part 3)

By: Thay Guirguis and Sara Anderson


Our previous two blogs in this series explored gun violence, children and what strategies parents, caregivers and teachers can use to support the mental health of infants and children. In this final blog, we discuss the importance of active shooter drills and how caregivers can provide support before and after the drill.

Often, when we speak to caregivers about active shooter drills, they express their uncertainty about what to say to their young children. They express their anxiety about whether an active shooter drill can cause more harm than good. Sometimes, caregivers choose to avoid the topic, even keeping their child home from school on the day of the drill.

Drills are not new.

Teachers and children practice how to escape and stay safe during unexpected fires, tornadoes or earthquakes. In fact, during the Cold War, schools mandated drills to practice safety in the event a nuclear attack occurred.

The purpose of a drill is to prepare teachers and children to act versus freeze during a time of crisis.

When talking to children about an active shooter drill, ask them what they know about the drill. “Why do you think you practice this drill at school?” Children often know more than we think. By gauging what they feel or think about drills, you can proceed with a conversation about what it is all about.

Make sure to let them know that we do things daily to keep us safe in society, like wearing a helmet, waiting for the crosswalk to say walk before walking, wearing a seatbelt, and even as simple as washing our hands.

Talking to children ages five and older

If your child is aged 5 and up, you could say, “In school, you will have drills that help you know what to do if there is a fire, tornado, or an active shooter. Please know that these drills may happen several times in a school year. This doesn’t mean that you are in danger, but you want to practice what to do so that you don’t have to second guess if something unexpected happens. When things are unexpected, we don’t know what to do, but by doing the drills – we can feel more confident about what to do.”

Talking to children younger than five years old

For even younger children, you may want to keep it shorter and say, “Today, you will have a drill to practice staying safe in case something scary happens while you are at school. It is your teacher’s job to keep you safe. They may have you practice sitting and staying in one area for a short time. You may hear an announcement or loud noise indicating the drill or practice will begin.”

For teachers and caregivers, it can be helpful to create a social story with pictures to help young children understand what will happen and what they should do during the drill. This is something that can be reviewed a few days leading up to the drill.

Managing your own anxiety before talking to children about drills

These kinds of drills can stir up anxiety for everyone — children, caregivers, and teachers. It is important for adults to check in and pay attention to their own feelings before talking with the children in their care. In moments of newness, anxiety, or confusion, children turn to their trusted adults. They need to know the adults are in charge, are available to support them so they feel confident that adults can keep them safe.

And just like we take the time to prepare children for the drill, it can be important to take the time after to check in to see how it went or felt. Simply asking about how it may have felt or seeing if they have any questions about what happened can provide another space to help children and adults process this experience and fill in any missing information.

Talk to young children about active shooter drills

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