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How To Talk To Your Kids About Shooting Drills, Because Research Shows The Effects Could Be Long Lasting

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Last year, when my 4-year-old son's preschool teacher explained that throughout the year their class would practice lockdown drills, I nearly had a panic attack. She told us that they would be using glow sticks to help distract the kids and teach them how to hide quietly inside of a dark bathroom in the corner of their classroom in case there was ever a need to hide from an active shooter at school. Knowing how to talk to your kids about shooting drills is a parenting skill that I did not realize I needed until I needed it.

"There is no data that shows that children enduring active shooter drills improves the outcome of an actual active shooter situation. There is data that shows that these drills can cause depression and anxiety in children," warns Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, who advocates for preemptive measures that will make schools safer. Her comments hit on a pain point for U.S. parents.

It's incredibly confusing to try and explain to a 4-year-old that when this type of drill happens, it's important to stay quiet and follow directions. You want them to know that if someone really bad was inside of their school, they'd have to have practiced just that — being quiet and hidden. But explaining it in a simple, non-scary way feels impossible. A grim reality of sending your child to school in the U.S. today is that most schools have some sort of safety procedure in place for what would happen if a shooter were to enter the building, and our kids are made to practice these scenarios.

There are typically two schools of thought when it comes to practicing shooter drills at school. The first is that by practicing the scenarios in which a shooter would enter their school, students and teachers will be better prepared in case this situation does occur. The second perspective is that these drills are unnecessary due to the stress and trauma they can cause children, and the lack of data showing that they help prevent injury or death in an active shooter situation, reported the Child Mind Institute.

Instead of creating fear-inducing scenarios for children to participate in to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter, some advocate for schools to instead focus on preemptive measures that will make schools safer. This is the basic stance Watts's organization has taken, she tells Romper by phone.

A kindergarten student hides under her desk during a classroom lockdown drill February 18, 2003 in Oahu, Hawaii. Lockdown procedure is used to protect school children from possible threats on campus such as intruders, terrorism or military attack. Phil Mislinski/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"We’re coming at it from a perspective of talking to school boards and lawmakers to come up with intervention solutions like threat assessment programs and security upgrades that we know can help intervene before school shootings happen," Watts tells Romper. "But the bottom line here is the best way to make our schools safer is to focus on intervention instead of relying on extreme drills that can traumatize children and seriously impact student development. There is no data that shows that children enduring active shooter drills improves the outcome of an actual active shooter situation. There is data that shows that these drills can cause depression and anxiety in children."

The Washington Post reported in December 2018 that more than 4.1 million students in the United States participated in at least one lockdown drill during the 2017 to 2018 school year. Their analysis, as cited in a report by Everytown for Gun Safety that was released in conjunction with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, concluded that these types of drills created a risk for the development of depression and anxiety in students.

While Watts notes that the drill content varies widely state to state and district to district, the concern for students' mental health and overall wellbeing is a primary concern for which her organization believes parents can advocate for at a local level. "We encourage parents to have conversations with their school board, with school officials, and even their lawmakers about the content of some of these drills. And if you are going to have your children go through these drills, what parents should do is demand that they are appropriate in tone and content," Watts says.

Understanding that shooter drills may illicit negative reactions in students is imperative when it comes time to discuss these drills with your child. While it may seem counterintuitive or fear-inciting to talk about the possibility of a shooter on your child's school campus with them, research by The Child Mind Institute shows that avoiding discussing sensitive topics with your kids can actually produce more anxiety about the topic.

Maureen Healy, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and child development expert at Growinghappykids.com, spoke with Romper to discuss the ways parents can help prepare their child for experiencing a shooter drill at school. "Every child is different and has a unique personality, as well as capacity to handle scary things (for example, violence, disasters). A child in grade school where the school does lockdown drills in the event of an emergency will likely benefit from their parent speaking to them prior to the experience at school. Many young boys and girls need to know that sometimes challenging things happen, and it's good to be prepared," Healy tells Romper.

A kindergarten teacher closes the windows as her students crawl under their desks during a classroom lockdown drill February 18, 2003 in Oahu, Hawaii. Lockdown procedure is used to protect school children from possible threats on campus such as intruders, terrorism or military attack. Phil Mislinski/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Before school begins, it may be helpful to talk to your child's teacher or school officials about what type of drills will be happening on their campus this year and how they will impact students. Then, you will be able to explain to your child what will occur in order to help reassure them as best you can. Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone, and it is up to you to help guide them through these scenarios.

"Parents need to be honest in age-appropriate ways that work for your son or daughter. I would caution parents to not give too much information, to focus on their child feeling safe, and helping their son or daughter feel protected by these policies versus feeling overwhelmed and stressed," Healy says.

The National Association of School Psychologists' guidelines for talking to students about school violence states that parents can reassure children by reminding them about the safety features of their school, but also validating their concerns. They recommend using age-appropriate conversation techniques such as playing or drawing with younger kids while discussing drills.

The guidelines also recommend that parents allow their children to ask questions and express their fears and concerns in the safety of their own home before they are put into a scenario at school that may trigger feelings of depression and anxiety. Explain to your child that they can always talk to you about how they may be feeling about these drills and offer comfort in the form of physical closeness.

Advocacy group Mental Health America offers similar guidelines for talking to children about school safety and addressing your child's concerns about school safety drills. These include continuing the conversation with children throughout the school year as needed. Both sets of guidelines stress that if you notice a change in your child's behavior, eating or sleeping habits as a result of these conversations or after participating in a drill, it is important to seek the advice of a mental health professional who can assist both you and your child.