Lockdown Drills Are Traumatizing Children

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Phil Mislinski/Getty

When my son was in kindergarten, he came home and told me there was a raccoon loose in the hallway at school. “Huh?” I said, thinking it was some story one of the other kids had concocted on the playground. According to him, though, it was something the teacher said.

After he’d relayed this story a few more times, I was able to piece it together. Once he shared that his class was staying safe from the raccoon by huddling together in the corner of the classroom—and that they had to stay really quiet so the raccoon wouldn’t hear them—I knew what was going on.

It was a lockdown drill, and the “raccoon” was the shooter that the kids were hiding from, only the teacher didn’t want to explicitly say that, so she subbed in “raccoon” instead.

All of this absolutely broke my heart. This is the world we live in now, I thought. This is the fractured world I’m raising my children in.

I completely understood why my son’s teacher wanted to soften the situation by pretending that there was a raccoon on the loose in the school, but what ended up happening was that my son really started to believe there could be a raccoon wandering the halls at anytime. Some of the kids told him they’d seen one out in the playground. A couple of times my son said he was scared to go out to recess.

My son didn’t seem terrified, but the whole thing put him on edge. He wouldn’t stop talking about it, in a nervous/obsessed kind of way, and I wondered why his teachers hadn’t informed us of what was going on so we could help our kids process the whole thing.

Jasmin Merdan/Getty

Of course, the heartbreaking thing about this is that my son’s story is just one of many, as schools across the country have adjusted to the “new normal” of conducting lockdown drills on the regular, and having to decide how to present information about school shootings to their students.

For most kids, it’s not a raccoon they are thinking about when they sit in the corner of their classroom hiding in silence. Many students are hyperaware that it’s an active shooter they are practicing hiding from.

There is so much to say about how fucked up and scary our world is—how completely intolerable it is that lawmakers can’t seem to do anything about the gun epidemic in this country—and how helpless many of us feel to change things.

But besides all that, our children are being subject to these lockdown drills several times a year (or more), and it seems like no one is talking about what toll this takes on their mental health.

Nancy Kislin, a Marriage and Family Psychotherapist, want to change that. Her recently published book, Lockdown: Talking To Your Kids About School Violence, addresses the issue head-on. As Kislin tells Scary Mommy, her book is the first of its kind to show “how lockdown drills are traumatizing a generation of children.”

“We must consider the mental and emotional health of our children in this climate of fear,” Kislin says. “0.05% of children die in school yet millions are traumatized each day.”

According to Kislin, more kids than many of us realize are experiencing signs of trauma and fear as a result of lockdown drills—and especially in the case of active shooter drills, where simulated shootings are carried out.

“Traumatic experiences alter the way we think, we react, and the stories we tell ourselves,” says Kislin. “We all experience traumas. Small traumas and large traumas.”

“What happens to the child who watches the news—seeing a mass shooting—kids running out of schools, kids shot up?” Kislin asks. “What happens to the teen who watches on his Snapchat a teen bleed to death after being shot during a school shooting—in real-time?”

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, school shooting anxiety is rampant among kids these days. 57% of teens worry that a school shooting will happen in their school. Parents share this far as well, with 63%, fearing a shooting at their child’s school.

Kindergarten students lie on the floor during a classroom lockdown drill February 18, 2003 in Oahu, Hawaii.

Phil Mislinski/Getty

Lockdown drills—though necessary in so many ways—aren’t helping with the widespread fear kids are enduring.

Part of what is happening here, says Kislin, is that parents are kept in the dark about what their kids are experiencing, and there is very little focus within the schools on helping kids emotionally unpack lockdown drills.

“To start, many parents are not aware of the frequency of the drills or what really is expected of a child,” says Kislin. “They don’t know the difference between an active shooter drill—where a real shooting is acted out—this happens in some schools and a regular lockdown drill. They don’t know how many kids are fearful of going to the bathroom in case a lockdown drill or the real thing happens. Many say they are afraid to die alone.”

Kislin says that there are important steps schools can take to ease fears and help students process what is going on during these drills.

First, Kislin believes that all schools should announce that what is happening is just a drill—it’s important for kids never to think what is happening is the real thing.

She is strongly opposed to active shooter drills, where shootings are simulated and police officers swarm the school as they would if there had been a real shooting.

She thinks parents should be informed by email when a drill has taken place so that they can decompress with their kids after the fact. And she believes there should be more teacher and parent training, offering guidance for how to dealing with the mental health aspects of the drills.

Teachers can be trained to offer children mindfulness techniques to employ during a drill. After the drills, she thinks all children should be given a few minutes to de-stress.

“After the drill is over, give the kids two minutes to regroup—lead them in yoga, skip around classroom, jumping jacks,” Kislin says. “This acknowledges that what we just did was stressful—it’s good to release.”

These are such simple ideas, but they could have such an impact on how kids process these events. I know that I personally would have liked a heads-up about this mysterious “raccoon” that was wandering my son’s school hallways. I would have liked to know when these drills were happening, and given some ideas for how to help my son handle the whole thing in an age-appropriate way.

Like any parent, my biggest wish is that my children didn’t live in a world where school shootings are so frequent that they’ve almost become normal.

But given that this is our reality now, it seems imperative that we begin focusing on how we can help our kids make sense of what they are seeing and hearing—and most of all, ensure that their mental health is preserved along the way.

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