As any head of school can attest, lockdown drills, as well as other measures that prep staff and students on how to behave in emergency situations, have become as commonplace in our schools as fire drills. The National Center for Education Statistics tells the story: Today, more than 90% of schools practice lockdown drills during the academic year.
The unfortunate reasons for heightened security at our schools are clear. But while most schools have instituted lockdown drills and other drastic, albeit necessary, security measures, many health care professionals believe they can be counterproductive, often causing children to grow increasingly anxious and even traumatized.
Fortunately, many teachers and school administrators have found ways not only to alleviate students’ fears, but also to turn these drills into positive experiences that enhance students’ sense of safety.
Here are a few points to consider:
• Age matters. It’s important to keep children informed—to let them know what is being done to protect them. Remember, however, that what children are capable of comprehending and internalizing differs depending upon age and grade. First graders, for example, understand things differently from seventh graders—and they have different concerns. With this in mind, younger children in the early developmental stage should be verbally prepped in advance of the drill and a discussion should take place following the drill. Older children can handle more information and thus may need more details in order to be satisfied.
• Knowledge is power. Addressing the reasons for lockdowns directly can actually make students feel safer. Especially with younger children, it’s wise to stress the unlikelihood of a bad event. Older students are likely to have consumed large quantities of media about school violence—some of it graphic. One of the most valuable things a teacher can do is listen and help them sort out fears through honest conversations. Sometimes their concerns are things teachers and school administrators may not have considered: For example, surprisingly, many children worry about getting caught in the restroom during a lockdown. Once you are aware of concerns, a plan of action can be devised that makes everyone felt safer as a result.
• Debrief to build trust. “Debriefing” after a lockdown sends a message to students that you are working as a community to test out and improve a plan to stay safe. It sends a positive message, saying, “We are all taking part in this. We are strong and competent.”
A post-drill debriefing is a great time to ask questions that draw out feelings and hidden concerns as well as to encourage students to brainstorm ways to improve safety, e.g., “I know it felt real and a little scary, didn’t it?” “How can we work together to make our room safer?”
For upper elementary students, a debriefing can also be used to bolster confidence. A sample conversation starter: “You did a great job moving quickly and quietly today. I loved how you ____.” Teachers can also invite students to share their “what if” questions and address them together. talking about feelings builds a “safe space” in the classroom and creates a better culture overall.
• A final thought. Even small interactions can strengthen students’ sense of living in a community that cares about them. Teachers can reach out to students by acknowledging that bad events have happened, validating students’ feelings about them and offering to help students find answers to difficult questions.
Small gestures have the power to help students cope during and after their stressful lockdown. These students came together, helped one another. Simple things… a look…the small question “You OK?” These things resonate. We are a community and we behave as such.
As educators it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of our students in school. Student safety is at the forefront of what we do alongside providing an excellent educational program. The safety tools that we utilize to educate our children within school will also be transferred to the benefit of the security and safety of their daily lives.
We all pray for the day when these drills and conversations will not be needed.
By Jacqueline Herman
Jacqueline Herman is head of school at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy.