Rethinking Lockdown: Age-Appropriate Safety Drills

Back to school means new crayons, new backpacks, new teachers, new friends – and new safety drills.

Fire drills have long been a fact of life in our schools. In fact, I dare you to find an elementary classroom where the kids can’t finish this set of commands: Stop. Drop.

Of course the answer is Roll – and of course, that’s what we teach children to do in the event of a fire. Each month, from kindergarten to high school, teachers routinely conduct fire drills. They are engrained in our culture – we conduct fire drills and there’s no fear associated with them.

The same can’t be said of safety drills, though. Increasingly, we are seeing a pushback from schools, teachers and parents who object to practice for sheltering in place or lockdowns. The disparity in response is puzzling – fire can kill as much as gunfire, yet we see a visceral fear when it comes to safety drills that just isn’t there for fire drills.

We are strong advocates for age-appropriate safety drills. It’s less important for kids, particularly younger kids, to understand why they are practicing certain movements than to understand the movements themselves. It’s a case of stimulus-response: When you hear this noise, it means we have to move to this area and be quiet – just as when you hear the fire alarm, it means you have to line up and exit the classroom and then the school quickly and quietly.

When younger kids ask why we are doing a particular drill, it’s OK to be general. We have found it works to tell them that there are some emergencies where to be safe, we have to leave the building – but other times, we have to stay inside to be safe. Framing it as practicing being safe within the classroom is a non-scary way to broach the subject.

Of course, the answer is age dependent. High schoolers will know – and likely have less anxiety over – the reason behind the drills. Even middle schoolers may have some concept of the reasons behind a drill.

For younger children, though, such as daycare, kindergarten and early elementary, safety drills are more designed for teachers to practice and understand the spacing issues. Do all the kids fit in this area? How quickly can I get the door locked?

We recommend that schools practice safety drills at least twice a year. These should consist of:

  • Establishing a simple alert: Schools could use the public address system, but they need to have a back-up of some type, such as an air horn, verbal alert or something that can’t be easily defeated by a technology fail. When it comes to alert, two is one and one is none, so be sure to have a backup.
  •  Recognizing the safe areas of the classroom: We helps schools identify this during the site assessment. They want to pick spots away from doors, our of the line of site from windows and preferably behind a locked or secured door.
  • Understanding what you can physically do: The capabilities of the school will determine the protocol, so it’s critical to understand what the building will and will not do. It’s not enough to say that you have to lock or barricade the door to a classroom – some classroom doors have no locks while others open from the outside. A site assessment will allow teachers to identify the protocol that works best with their facility.

Approaching safety drills in an age-appropriate way ensures students practice the movements they need to respond quickly in a crisis, giving both parents and teachers added peace of mind.