Explaining a lockdown can be one of the most difficult parts of a teacher’s job. According to a government survey, two-thirds of school districts in the United States now conduct “active shooter” drills—and it often falls on teachers to make judgement calls between informing kids and alarming them.
“I worry that students are unaware of events and that I'm breaking news to them. I worry that they will fear being at school,” says Meghan Everette, a K–6 teacher in the Salt Lake City School District and a Scholastic Top Teaching blogger.
After a school shooting, these worries can multiply. Copycat threats, false alarms, and even routine drills set nerves on edge. In one viral post made earlier this year, a teacher wrote about how she broke down in tears after a fire alarm sounded when she realized she was waiting to hear gunshots.
No teachers want their students to have to feel this anxiety. Fortunately, many teachers have found ways to alleviate students’ lockdown fears—and even to turn drills into positive experiences that enhance students’ sense of safety.
Psychologists agree with these kinds of approaches. “When you’re dealing with something potentially frightening, if you can get ahead of the anxiety, then kids feel more in control,” explains Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist at the Child Mind Institute. “They feel a sense of competence. They know that the teachers have a plan, and the whole thing can make them feel quite safe.”
We asked teachers to share tips about making lockdown drills (or actual lockdowns) less scary and more positive—for any age group.
How to Explain What’s Happening
As the psychologists we spoke with attest, avoiding a topic can create more anxiety about it. Addressing the reasons for lockdowns directly but in a developmentally appropriate way can actually make students feel safer. Our conversations with teachers pointed to a simple rule of thumb: Always be honest and factual, and don’t get into details with younger kids. You can share more specific information with older students.
“I try not to hide anything,” says Laura Lai, a second-grade teacher at PS 124M Yung Wing School in New York. “As young as they are, they respond better when they know the reasons and facts behind these drills. I tell them that when the doors are locked and it's quiet in the room, whoever the dangerous person is will try to get into the rooms, but if we stay quiet, they will think that the room is empty and they won't try to come in and will move on.”
Meghan Everette also uses honest but simplified language with young children. “There really isn't a way to sugarcoat what we are practicing and why, so I don't pretend there is, no matter how old the students are. I tell them we are going to practice hiding and being quiet in case there is someone in the building who wants to harm us.”
Many teachers and psychologists also recommend stressing the unlikelihood of a bad event with this age group, as they may not understand its low probability. And you should stress the steps in the drills even more than the reasons for them. Dr. Howard says that while it is important to explain the “why” of a lockdown drill, it is best to focus more heavily on the “how.” “Young children like to learn things, do them correctly, and receive praise for following instruction,” she explains. “Focusing the conversation on the procedural elements can prevent rumination and worries about why a bad thing might happen.”
Older children are more knowledgeable about bad things that can happen—so it’s crucial to focus on steps the teacher will take to keep them safe (and again, to stress that events are rare). “I don't tell them that they shouldn't feel afraid, or that nothing bad is going to happen,” says Jason Kline, a grades 4–5 teacher at EAGLE Charter School in Salem, Oregon. Instead, he emphasizes that he will do “anything and everything” to keep them safe. “I tell them before our first lockdown drills that my job is more than just teaching them how to read or do math. One of the biggest jobs I have as the teacher is to keep the kids safe throughout the entire time they are with me.”
“That means they don't get to leave the classroom without me knowing about it, they can't run all over campus just because it sounds like fun,” continues Kline. One student later told him that his reassurances “made her realize she was in as safe a place as she could possibly be, and she wasn't scared as a result.”
By the time students are teens, they probably have consumed large quantities of media about school violence—some of it graphic. One of the most valuable things a teacher can do is to listen and help them sort out fears they bring up, recommends Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a psychiatrist and founding president of the Child Mind Institute.
Theresa M. Quitshaw, a seventh-grade math teacher at McAuliffe Elementary School in Chicago, agrees: “I will follow their lead when it comes to talking about current events related to lockdowns.” When students bring up news stories or violence they’ve witnessed in their own neighborhood, Quitshaw has “open and honest conversations” to draw out and address their concerns. Sometimes these concerns are things she never thought of—for example, a surprising number of kids were worried about what would happen if they were caught in the restroom during a lockdown. Together they made a plan—and everyone felt safer as a result.
Strategies to Get Kids’ Cooperation
While getting kids to cooperate can always present challenges, a stressful situation makes it even tougher. Teachers and psychologists both say projecting a confident, composed demeanor—no matter what is going on beneath the surface—helps reassure students that you are in control.
Hailey Deloya-Vegter, a K–8 autism specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools, has ideas that could be useful in any early classroom setting. She hangs a poster showing a lockdown “story”—with visual symbols to show important behaviors, such as having a quiet mouth, keeping hands to oneself, and sitting down. If all else fails, she keeps a special box of lockdown snacks in her room.
Everette asks her youngest students to identify personal strategies for staying still and quiet, such as sitting on their hands. Though she emphasizes that drills are not “fun,” she does allow silent games (such as the chopsticks hand game) if students need distraction.
Upper elementary students may understand procedures yet struggle to maintain self-control. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, stress can also bring out erratic behavior—from acting out to spacing out.
Kline believes cultivating a bond of trust is key for this age group. “I fully believe it's the relationships I build with the students before there is a problem that allows for there to not be a problem. It starts on day one. It starts when I see them in the halls or cafeteria as 2nd and 3rd graders. I spend the vast majority of my time as a teacher building the relationships with each of my students so that, when I ask them to do something that's out of the ordinary—like hunker down in a corner of the room and turn off their voices because they could be in danger—they know that I have their best interests in mind.”
Teens may be mature enough to take on some responsibility in gathering and analyzing facts. Matt Jablonski, a 10th-grade history teacher at Elyria High School in Ohio, spent several harrowing hours locked down with his class after a hoax threat brought armed police officers into his room. Throughout the experience, Jablonski treated his students like adults, sharing available information immediately in a low voice and allowing cellphone use, something he recommends (although phones should be kept on silent). (There is some debate on cellphone usage, but many experts believe the safety benefits outweigh the drawbacks.)
“It seemed to permit them some control of the situation. I believe this was important. One kid listened to the police scanner, others checked local media, while others exchanged information with other kids in the building.”
How to Talk About It Afterwards
While “debriefing” after a lockdown may seem like a job for school administrators, many teachers feel it is important to do with students in their own classrooms. According to Dr. Howard, working as a community to test out and improve a plan sends a positive message to kids, saying, “We’re all taking part in this. We’re strong and competent. We can handle this.”
Everette gives her youngest students some power over their safety by inviting them to add to her emergency backpack. “They help identify any missing items. Students are great at identifying needs; one diabetic student of mine requested cake icing tubes [for fast sugar] and a spare test kit.”
After the drill, Everette asks questions to draw out feelings and hidden concerns: “I know it felt real and a little scary, didn't it? I jumped when the door rattled. Did you feel scared or worried? Why? How could I help make our room safer?”
She then helps students take concrete actions to improve safety. “Several noted that if they could see out, someone could see in. I pulled up my e-mail on the whiteboard and they helped draft a note to our administrator about needing roller shades in our room.”
As with younger grades, you can engage older kids to get together in groups and brainstorm ways safety can be improved. Ellen Palmer, a reading teacher at Meadowvale Elementary in Toledo, Ohio, also allows students to look around the school after a lockdown drill to make sure “that everyone in the building is safe and that we can go back to business as usual.”
Everette helps her upper elementary students debrief with conversation starters: “You did a great job moving quickly and quietly today. I loved how you ____. I was disappointed when I saw ____ because we discussed no horseplay.” She also invites students to share their “what-if” questions and address them together. Everette believes talking about feelings builds a “safe space” in her classroom and creates a better culture overall.
Many teens try to soothe anxious feelings by obsessing on the Internet and social media, but this often makes things worse. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends setting aside digital media to seek out in-person conversations. 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.
Matt Jablonski saw the power of small gestures to help his own 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 resonated. We are a community and we behaved as such.”