By Allison Wedell Schumacher
I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during the Cold War. Because our Air Force base had some of the Minuteman missiles (which carried nuclear warheads), the prevailing sense was that we were pretty high up on the USSR’s list to bomb should the Cold War suddenly turn blisteringly hot.
To maintain a sense of safety in the face of this possibility, my elementary and junior high schools conducted fire drills, tornado drills . . . and nuclear holocaust drills. Of course, their hearts were in the right place, but I was often struck by the futility of hiding under my desk with my social studies textbook on my head. I was surprised to hear my own dubiousness voiced aloud by one of my teachers, who guided us through the drill and then told us, “If this really happens, I’m supposed to stay with you, but I want you to know I’m going to go to the nearest outside door to watch it happen. Because for one thing, I’ve never seen a nuclear bomb go off, and for another, we’re all going to die anyway.”
Practicing without Scaring
I was a teenager at that point, and although I don’t remember having these drills in my preschool and early elementary years, we must’ve had them. And they must’ve been scary! Although nuclear war is no longer as much of a threat (thank goodness), other specters have reared their ugly heads to replace it, among them school shootings.
So, how do we talk to young children about safety drills in a way that prepares them to be safe without scaring the living daylights out of them? I spoke to Chloe Engelbrecht, a preschool teacher at St. Edward School in Seattle, to find out how she approaches safety drills with her young students.
First of all, Chloe acknowledges that it is both appropriate and necessary to talk to younger children about safety drills differently from how we talk to older kids about them: “The language you use varies depending on the age of the child,” she says, which is why she starts by explaining to young children what the word drill means. “I explain that we are practicing an important skill, and then later on, I introduce the word drill. When I can, I like to use books about drills to talk to students about them.”
Chloe isn’t too worried about the drill itself scaring the children and says it doesn’t happen very often: “So far, the children seem to understand that these drills are being done so that they know what to do when things such as a fire, an earthquake, or even a lockdown [what her school does for shooters and other attacks] happen.” When children do get scared, Chloe finds creative ways to comfort them: “I had one student who was scared of the noise, so when I knew we were going to have another fire drill, I asked his father to join us. This helped because the next time we practiced, he was able to do the drill and was not scared of the noise, and his father did not have to be there.”
Chloe has never had a child not take it seriously—perhaps that comes in later years—but if she did, she says, “I would pull the child aside and have a private conversation about how important these drills are. I would also ask them why they think it is funny or why they are not taking it seriously.”
Varying Practice Times
Chloe knows firsthand how important safety drills are because she has had to put them into practice more than once: “During my first year of teaching, the fire alarm went off, and my aide had to carry some of the students out of the building because they had been sleeping.” Not something you have to worry about with children in first grade or older! This was how she learned to practice drills in the afternoon—that is, during naptime—as well as in the morning. Fortunately, that one turned out to be a false alarm.
The Calm After the Storm
The second instance was very recent and all too real: “The whole school had just had our first lockdown drill, which went really well. A few days later, the students who were in before-school care had to go to a different building (a modified lockdown) and wait because vandals had thrown rocks through our school’s windows. One of my students calmly told me when I arrived that they had had a lockdown. I was so glad that we had been able to practice this before it happened!”
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and the Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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