A Guest Post by Nancy Kislin, LCSW
It's maybe no surprise that children are being traumatized by the fear of being shot to death in school. Monthly lockdown drills, active shooter drills and evacuation drills are causing anxiety and depression in children.
The sad reality is that school children today do live with long-lasting trauma either of the threat or of witnessing a school shooting, or enduring the collateral damage of experiencing lockdown drills.
The statistics are disturbing:
Over 187,000 school students have been exposed to gun violence since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, where 13 students died. In the Sandy Hook school shooting 26 lost their lives, another 17 were lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2018.
These days, students learn about the news in real time. A school shooting happens in Florida and a teen in California is hyper-focused on how many kids are dead as he stares hopelessly into the screen of his smartphone during class.
He wonders, “Could this happen here?” or even “When will this happen at my school?”
We live in a world in which high school students talk about whether jumping out of a second-floor classroom window is safer than getting shot by an intruder. Children are coming of age in a time when the basic assumption “I will be safe in school” no longer holds true.
In a world where lockdown drills are becoming normal practice, I wanted to know how we can talk to our children about it without causing further alarm and anxiety.
In preparation for writing my book, Lockdown, Talking To Your Children About School Violence, I interviewed hundreds of children and parents seeking to understand how kids are doing in this climate of fear. I learned that many children are feeling anxious about school safety.
I learned that many children worry about going to the bathroom during the school day for fear of a lockdown drill happening while they were on the way there or while they were in the bathroom. One worst scenario is being in the bathroom during a drill. “I don’t want to die alone,” was a statement I heard over and over again.
From others I heard that kids don’t like going into classrooms where they don’t know anyone. This isn't unusual when, in many schools, if you are in the hallway during a drill you have to go into the nearest classroom to hide.
Fear Runs Deep
A 12-year-old girl demands that her mother buy her an Apple watch. “Mom I have to have an Apple watch!” she say. “I have no way to call you to say goodbye when a shooter enters my school. I have to be able to call you,” she declared. There was such intensity in her voice.
Her mother looked at her daughter with utter disbelief.
The daughter then explained to her mom that 6th graders were not permitted to bring their phones to class but they could wear Apple watches.
In a climate of fear, how can we guide our children?
Taking the watch story as an example, there are several things i’d advise this mom to try.
Acknowledge – It is important that the mom acknowledge her daughter’s concern. “Wow, I didn’t know you were worried about being safe in school? “Do you worry about being safe while you are in school?”
Respond to the fear behind the request – It’s key not to get caught up in the discussion. Rather than focus on buying a watch get curious about what your child’s fears, how frequent these fears are and letting your child know you are there to talk about them.
Reassure – Remind your kids that they are safe in school. The reality is that millions of kids go to school each day and are safe. Remind them that their teachers and school staff are trained to keep them safe.
Ready for a journey?
There is power in knowledge and I invite you to become part of the conversation around lockdowns in your children's school.
I want you to imagine that you are your child’s age. You are sitting in a classroom focused on your teacher’s lecture or working on a project with your partner. The lesson is interrupted by the principal’s voice over the loudspeaker:
“LOCKDOWN, LOCKDOWN, LOCKDOWN!”
Lockdown, Lockdown, Lockdown is repeated as the teacher motions to the students to run to their hiding places as she runs to the classroom door. She reminds her students to take their bag of rocks with them. She opens the door, looks out into the hallway to see if anyone is there. If any child is in the hallway – she tells them to go into her room.
She then closes the door and locks it.
The teacher turns off the lights, moving quickly to the windows and pulls down the shades. She joins the students in their hiding places. They all sit huddled behind desks, or in a supply closet, or younger kids hide between hanging coats. The students are “armed and trained” to throw their rocks at the shooter.
They do not know if it is a drill or the real thing.
The children and the teacher wait, and they wait, not sure if a shooter is going to enter their classroom.
Variations of this drill happen every day in schools throughout the US – starting in preschool all the way to college.
Finally after 10 minutes, a voice over the loudspeaker announces that the lockdown is over.
Now imagine this. You get right back to your class as if nothing has happened.
That's right. Students are expected to go right back to what they were doing before the lockdown.
How are you feeling? Are you feeling stressed?
Ideas for Change
Get Informed – What drills are in place at your school. Are parents informed when they are upcoming, or have been held? How do you feel about the drills and is there someone you can talk to about your concerns?
- Lockdown drills – drills like the one I described in the story above.
- Shelter in place drills – when some type of emergency occurs and the school wants to keep children from moving in the hallways while they transport an injured person.
- Active shooter drills – when there is a lockdown but instead of hiding in place the children wait for direction of where the shooter may be and will then have to move out of a certain area or out of the building.
Speaking out about this can change things.
Talk to your kids about the different drills in their schools – ask questions gently, don’t flood them with your fear and anxiety. Just listen. Giving them this outlet can be useful for them.
Take action – Ask your school about the policy for lockdown drills. How frequent are they? Urge the school to email all parents at the conclusion of the drill. Look for signs your child may be affected.
Get involved – Learn more about the procedures and how the school created their current plan. How do teachers feel about the procedures, how are the children are coping with the drills?
A concerned mother approached me after a presentation to inform me that her daughter’s second grade teacher took her class on a field trip. Each child was handed a large zip-lock bag before they went outside. The children were directed to fill their bags with rocks. Once back inside, the children were directed to store their bags of rocks inside their desk. They were to retrieve their bags every time there was a lockdown drill. The teacher clearly stated the bags of rocks were to be used as weapons to throw at a shooter when he/she entered their classroom.
I heard many stories where teachers encouraged children to arm themselves.
I don’t believe it is good for a child’s mental and emotional well being to arm them with rocks in anticipation of a shooter. Every time a child opens their desk, it can trigger their fear that a shooter may come to their school to kill them.
I don’t believe that arming children with rocks, golf clubs, baseball bats and other items is an effective method to stop school shootings. I am concerned that this practice increases the level of anxiety and trauma in children and teachers.
Share coping skills with your child – breathing and grounding exercises can help them when they are sitting in the dark.
A Technique for Keeping Calm
Giving your child a focus can help calm them in the moment and can be a way of connecting at home.
Teach your child to breath in for the count of three – hold their breath for the count of three – exhale for the count of three. Do this three times. Then they can do this tightening muscle exercise: Tighten all the tiny, little muscles in their toes. Ask them to imagine they are closing them really tightly. Count to three. Next release all the muscles in their toes. Do the same thing for every part of their body, moving up from the legs.
You can remind them that a child can do this exercise with their eyes open and no one needs to know they are doing it.
Nancy Kislin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, and parent coach. She is author of the book Lockdown, Talking to Your Kids About School Violence. You can find out more about the book, and handling challenging conversations around school drills at www.lockdownbook.com.
More resources for talking to kids about shocking events
This care package of posts will help keep communication and connection open when world events shock or after your child has been through trauma.