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How to talk to kids about active shooter drills

The first day of school is a momentous day for both parents and children. Your child might be excited for this new journey but as a parent you know that it comes with many challenges. The horrific massacre in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, another school shooting in a long line of school shootings, is an unfortunate example of that. The reality is we have to prepare our children for active shooter drills. Because the one place your child is supposed to feel safe away from home no longer exists.

You might decide to talk to your child about the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde or they might hear about it on their own. Whatever you decide is right for your family, there are state laws that require these walkthroughs and they may happen at the start of the school year.

Related: An age-appropriate guide for how to talk to your kids about school shootings

The drills may be traumatic for your children to encounter without parental guidance informing them at home first. They may think there’s an active shooter on-site during the practice drill or feel unsafe until they get home. Learning about the topic from their trusted parent will help them remain more at ease when it comes up at school.

Preschool kids: Meet them where they are

You might think of school shootings as a more recent phenomenon that affects only older students, but that isn’t necessarily true. Kids have been affected by school shootings since July 1764 and experienced that trauma at all grade levels. It’s more uncommon for preschoolers to encounter a school shooter, but it’s still possible.

Toddlers won’t understand the complex topic, so break the subject into pieces they can grasp. Flashcards may help break shootings down into simpler terms and images. Parents could point to an image of a nondescript person holding a gun and label that image as a bad person.

It’s also essential to remind preschoolers that their teacher is there to keep them safe. No matter what emergency occurs, they should follow their teacher’s instructions at all times. If they trust their instructor, they’ll feel much more comfortable during shooting drills.

If you’re worried about approaching the topic too early or in a manner your preschooler won’t understand, you can always approach a therapist who specializes in child psychology. They’ll explain how your child’s brain receives and interprets information. They could even become a neutral third party if you want them to facilitate the conversation.

Elementary students: Focus on providing security

The near-weekly national headlines of shootings may scare elementary school students, especially when they start routine emergency drills at school. It’s essential to address those headlines with other facts that will make your elementary school student feel safer.

Parents can always talk about what schools do to prevent shootings, like hiring school resource officers (SROs). Young kids might feel better after learning there are 52,000 part-time SROs and 15,500 other officers on school campuses.

In this way, families can address the reality of mass shootings without any graphic imagery accompanying the headlines students see. It will make children more confident that their drills will be an effective response to a situation that isn’t guaranteed to happen. When they do have to encounter pictures from school shootings for the first time, they’ll manage the experience more easily because they’ve established trust in the guardians around them.

Middle school students: Create an action plan

Middle schoolers will hear news stories and potentially read them in their free time. They may even see images in the reports because older kids are more likely to learn about shootings through friends or while on social media. Their expanded independence gives them more opportunities to find information without their parents presenting it through age-appropriate filters.

Part of the trauma related to shooting drills comes from students feeling a complete lack of power. Parents may reverse that feeling by creating an action plan when their child is in middle school. Talk about always being reachable by text message and how you can meet them outside at a specific spot when the school is safe to evacuate.

Although there’s no way to make kids completely comfortable with shooting drills and the potential for shooters walking into their classrooms, parents can empower their teenagers by walking them through the steps they can take beyond what their teachers require during a drill.

High school students: Review your action plan  

Walking through your child’s action plan at the beginning of every semester will make it muscle memory if a shooting occurs. Encourage them to remember that they can text you during drills and how to find you at a specific outdoor location in the event of an actual shooting.

The later teenage years are also a time when many kids feel like they can’t approach their parents with certain subjects due to embarrassment or a desire for independence. Parents can begin a helpful conversation by encouraging their teens to ask questions in the safety of their homes. 

Creating a safe space will reduce a young person’s anxiety. They will have a better headspace to dive further than questions if needed as well. Families can review potential upcoming laws that would reduce the likelihood of school shootings to make kids feel more comfortable in class. They might not understand the process of enacting laws, but knowing that people in power are trying to make a difference may ground them if they panic during drills.

Teenagers could also work with their parents to find out how to get involved at a local or national level. It’s another way to empower them regarding an event that would take away their power. Your teenager might be old enough to join protests for gun-control laws or help pro-gun-control campaigns for upcoming elections. Being part of a solution will ease their minds while talking about school shootings.

Learn how to talk about shooting drills

Almost every student will eventually encounter a school shooting drill. Parents need to review tips like these to learn how to talk to kids about shooting drills at any age. Parents will help their young people grow up without trauma from drills or headlines by taking proactive steps like starting age-appropriate conversations and empowering their students.

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