THE BLOG

Talking to Kids About a 'Lockdown'

10/23/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2013

In earlier times, when the threat came from nuclear weapons rather than young men with guns, schools trained children in "duck and cover" drills. These days, we have "lockdowns," requiring hiding from someone with a murderous intent and the means to accomplish it. Awful as the threats are, we also must find ways to tell our children to take care without terrifying them.

There are two parts to this issue:

  • First, what can we say when we rehearse such a scary prospect?
  • Secondly, should the horror come to pass, what can we say as it is occurring to mitigate it in nightmares and memory?

In the book I co-authored, Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain--And Come Out Strong, we provided a few strategies for preparing children for emergencies and other unexpected occurrences without frightening them. As a result, I was approached by a member of a Campus Safety and Crisis Response Committee of a small elementary school in California wondering how the subject of lockdown drills might most supportively be approached by the schools. They were hoping to develop a script they might then share.

In response I began by thinking about the word "lockdown." Because the word is most generally associated with prisons, it might make us all more comfortable to use a phrase currently in favor in the first-responder world: "shelter in place." It has a gentler feeling and, just as the word "safe" is more comforting at such times, "shelter" is valuable as well. They accepted that suggestion enthusiastically. And to soften the drama, they are couching the lockdown/secure drill along with flood, gas leak, and nuclear power issues.

Then, for part one, I offered these three general strategies:

Strategy 1: Listen to an authority figure for safety.

You might say to a child, "Remember when you were younger and you'd run ahead of your mother or father to the corner. And they'd be slower to get there, so when you got there without them they'd shout 'Stop!' or 'Freeze!' and you'd have to wait for them, there at the corner, before going into the street. And you knew why. Because there were cars that you might not see, drivers who might not see you. And your parents wanted to keep you safe.

Well, sometimes there still might be dangers that you can't see that the grown-ups know about and so they tell you to 'stop!' and even hide, sometimes, and wait for them to say 'All Clear, you can come out now.' And it's good to practice that. "

Strategy 2: Practice means being prepared.

Just as we sometimes practice fire drills so that we'll know what to do in case there is a fire, we are now going to practice being safe when there's trouble around. Even the toughest guys in the military practice what they're going to do in a difficult situation. Practice helps make doing the most useful, safest thing automatic. It creates a program in your mind that then runs itself in a time when thinking could be frozen by fear. (The British Army called it the "7 Ps: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss Poor Performance." For kids we might say "Proper Prior Planning and Preparation Prevent Poor Performance.") The bad thing may never happen, but when we're practiced in protecting ourselves, then we don't have to worry that we won't know what to do.

Strategy 3: A just-in-case plan

In another way it's like wearing a helmet when we ride our bikes. We wear helmets and kneepads when we skateboard. We don't expect to fall, but if we do, we'll be protected. Then we don't have to worry. We can just ride our bikes and boards and not even think about falling, because we have the situation covered. Being prepared is a "just in case" measure that helps you to feel at a deeper level that you're safe.

If the children are mature enough, you can let them know that there are bad people in the world who sometimes are so angry or confused they want to hurt other people. And at the time when they're acting out, it's good to know the best ways to stay safe. So that's what we're practicing now.

The Script
After I sent these thoughts to the School Safety & Crisis Response Committee, they came up with the following script, which we thought might be useful to other schools.

Every day, we do things to keep ourselves safe. Let's think of some examples. What do you put on before you start biking? What do you do before walking across the street? Another way we stay safe is by practicing for things that probably won't happen but it is good to be prepared for just in case. One way we do this at school, for instance, is by practicing fire drills and earthquake drills. Practice helps us know what to do just in case of an emergency.

Another kind of situation we can prepare for is when we need to keep you safe from a stranger while you are at school. This would probably never happen but just like a fire drill, we can practice our response so we are prepared.

Next week, we will practice this in a drill called a "Shelter Drill." During this drill, the teachers lock us inside for safety. You will know we are having a shelter drill when you hear the alarm, which sounds like... (alarm sounds).

Here are the steps of what we do during a shelter drill: The acronym is PAL.

P is for PAUSE: First, pause and take a deep breath. Breathing helps your mind work.

A is for ADULT: Wherever you are on campus, find a trusted adult. If you are in the classroom, stay there and find your teacher or other adult in the room. If you are outside, look for the teacher or other adult closest to you to tell you what to do and where to go.

L is for LISTEN: Listen to the adult's instructions. The adult will know what to do and will tell you. This is trickier than a fire drill because depending on where you are, you won't always go to the same place each time. You will know what to do if you listen. Also during this time, the teachers will lock the doors to their classrooms. When everything is safe, the adult will tell you that everything is all clear and we can go back to our regular school day.

We are all here to keep you safe. Practice means we are prepared and can feel confident that we all know what to do just in case. Having a plan like this and practicing what to do in a shelter drill means that we don't have to worry about these concerns and instead we can focus on having fun and learning at school.

Words for During the Lockdown
Even a rudimentary visit to the playground will verify that whether a child cries or not over a fall has less to do with pain and bleeding and more with whether the adult who responds does so with panic or calm assurance.

Moreover, how we address a crisis is often how the child will ultimately remember it, whether it will be recalled as a trauma or a time of courage and rescue. The teachers in the Newton tragedy who died saving the children likely modeled ultimate bravery and selflessness. Those who survived told us what they said and did: Kaitlin Roig told the children that they "were waiting for the good guys to come and get us," and music teacher Maryrose Kristopik, said "We hid in a closet, we stayed quiet, we held hands, we hugged." Each in her own way protected the children and reassured them that they were loved, even that they would have another Christmas. They did them a great service beyond saving their lives. When the teachers remained calm, they offered the children a model for courage and faith and a different kind of memory of the inherently terrifying situation.

What else can we say during a shelter drill that would keep the children feeling safe? And, ultimately, how can we help them not only feel safe but find their resilience?

There are words that reassure at a profoundly deep level. "I'm right here," says you don't have to fix this all by yourself. Someone else knows and will help take care of it. In a different way, so does "Let your teacher guide and protect you."

"Help is on the way. It's going to be okay," says that we're not alone in this.

"Hiding and listening is making things safe for now and you're doing a good job of it," says that there is something you can do, you're not just a victim, but someone who is making a difference by his/her actions (or quiet).

If the wait is long, "Let's imagine a place we love to be... your favorite vacation. You don't have to talk about it. Just remember it, everything you loved about it."

One small suggestion about what to do.

I'd recommend, as Ms. Kristopik did, that children hold each others' hands, off and on. In what is sometimes referred to as "borrowed strength," we gain courage by being in this together. Researchers at the University of Virginia's neuroscience laboratory say that hand holding actually changes the wiring in our brains and makes us feel protected and comforted.

Let us hope that we can change the world for the better so that some day we do not have to practice hiding from those who would harm us. And in the meantime, let us find ways to help keep as many innocents as possible safe in body and spirit.