School Safety Training for Children Must Start at Home

By regularly discussing safety with children, parents are in the driver’s seat to teach not only critical thinking skills but also skills that may save a child’s life.
Published: October 20, 2021

As adults, we sometimes get wrapped up in safety from a corporate perspective. But while you are at work, have you ever wondered what your children are learning at school about safety, including active shooter training?

If you have school-age children, grandchildren, neighbors, nieces, and nephews, I hope the answer to that is “yes.” And today I’m asking you to not only focus on what the school is teaching the children but also what you and other parents around you should be teaching your toddlers before they even get to school.

I hear you saying, “You want me to give my four-year-old twins active shooter training; are you nuts?” No. Hear me out.

The core of safety training is teaching children to be aware of their surroundings and act accordingly. As they grow, this allows them to add more facts and sophisticated critical thinking so they can respond to situations appropriately and put themselves into the safest environment.

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Before they can talk, we teach babies that seat belts are non-negotiable. As soon as they can walk, we teach toddlers not to run into the street. Once we have them outside, we teach them to hold our hand in parking lots.

Just as toddlers are taught to sit down before going down the steps, they are also taught to keep their hands off of the burners on the stove and to steer clear of the hot oven. All of this is taught at an age-appropriate level using both words and actions. None of these lessons are taught with graphic pictures of injured, maimed, and burned children.

Yet, when it comes to active shooter training in schools, people fear the worst. Visions of shaking children huddled under desks are foremost in our minds.

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Everyone participates in fire drills in school, and kids are taught to take cover if a tornado, tsunami, or earthquake is expected. These drills haven’t changed too much through the years, and this steady training has reduced the amount of fear we feel when exiting a building during a fire drill, for example. These drills remain important drills, even though we haven’t lost a child to a school fire in the United States since the 1950s in Chicago.

All that changes when we talk about the possibility of school shootings.

When I speak with parents, I find that active shooter training is what raises the hairs on the back of their necks. Parents worry children will be traumatized at even the mention of guns and school shootings.

I often ask, “Can you describe how your local school district trains your children to handle a school shooting?” Most parents say they don’t know, and the topic scares them too much to ask. At best, I might get a yes or no on whether some training exists.

This is true despite the reality that school shootings have been part of the national conversation for parents and their school-age children for 20 years. How unfortunate that the topic of a shooter in a school is so frightening that parents avoid it altogether even though it involves their most precious possession – their own child(ren).

This is easily remedied. I assure you your school-age children have talked about this among themselves, save perhaps the tiniest ones. I offer two recommendations here to reverse that course. Neither will take too much time.

First, find out what is being taught in your local school district, school, and classroom. You can see what’s on the school district website under policies. You can also call the district administrator or principal to ask, or you can see if your school has a school resource officer (SRO) who would know what children are taught.

Remember to check in with your child(ren)’s teachers to see what is being taught and drilled, and consider that you may get somewhat varied answers as teachers and principals apply their own spin on drills or training.

Second, and most importantly, talk to your child(ren). Ask what they are learning and what emergency drills they have done. Talk about the language used in their drills and how they feel about the drills. Are they scary or confusing? Empowering or unimportant?

Where to Start If Your Child Isn’t in School Yet

If little ones you care about aren’t even in school yet, start a conversation about school safety with them now. Safety conversations with younger siblings can give them a sense of confidence and calm as they see how older siblings react. Need a way to get that started? I have some great book recommendations below.

Why is this so important to think about? Lessons taught at an early age put parents and other adults in the driver’s seat and allow them to provide one-on-one tailored teaching that is appropriate for each child’s maturity level and needs. Giving parents the reigns is right in sync with public conversations underway now by parents advocating to be more engaged in decision-making for their child.

But don’t forget that teachers are just that …. teachers. They have all been trained to use age-appropriate language in the classroom. Trust they will do so without scaring your child. The challenge for teachers is that they still need to work with an entire classroom.

At home, most children can discuss more freely their fears and ask questions they might not bring up at school. School safety conversations at home can naturally expand into safety elsewhere, whether shopping, at Sunday school classes, or in the park. And when adults engage children in discussions about safety, it gives them a chance to teach important critical thinking skills as well.

Elementary school students, for example, are often extremely concerned about getting into trouble. Kindergarteners are just learning rules, and the most important one they may learn in that first week of school is to sit quietly at their desk no matter what.

This isn’t theoretical for me; it’s based on practical experience. As a longtime FBI Special Agent, it might seem like I would be in a different position with my own children. However, when it came to my two girls, I also was simply a parent worried about the safety of my kids. My kids learned about tornadoes and fires — even in preschool — but they didn’t learn all the safety lessons I thought they needed.

My kids and I often discussed how to respond in an emergency, including in an active shooter situation or when they might be separated from me during a disaster. This honed their own critical thinking skills. We discussed how sometimes bad people do bad things, and we don’t know why. Based on their age and maturity, we talked through how important it was to listen to their teachers and other adults.

I’d asked what options they could think of for keeping themselves safe. We discussed what they might be able to do, where they could go, and who they could trust. They realized that safety wears many coats. It might be a brick wall to hide behind, a tree to keep them out of sight, or ultimately fleeing the schoolyard or a classroom. And yes, we also used our discussions to appreciate how important it might be to sit tight and stay completely silent.

Parents who engage with the school, the teachers, and their children are the ones in charge of the narrative for their children. For example, I assured my children that if they made a decision to flee because they were in fear for their life, I would never be mad at them, and they would never be in trouble at home or at school. That’s a good thing for a child to hear directly from a parent.

Let me give you another example of why it is so valuable to engage even preschoolers in these conversations. When we teach even the youngest child how to be safe in public, this includes a caution about stranger danger and people who can hurt them. Though active shooter response training is the topic du jour, 30 years ago, parents were looking for ways to talk to kids about potential child abductors. We had a child abduction near my neighborhood when I had a toddler.

Small children waiting for the bus, walking through a mall, or riding their bike are prime targets for kidnappers, so these are good discussions to initiate. But if you have ever explored the subject of kidnapping with your school-age child, chances are you have also heard your child proclaim their ability to outfight or outrun the kidnapper.

As frightening as they are, these are good conversations to have with children. When you’re talking to a four- or five-year-old child, the conversation isn’t as complex. When you talk to 10- or 12-year-olds, the conversation may include the need to assuage them of the notion they can outpower a would-be kidnapper with the fancy kicks they see their favorite action hero use.

The lesson is pretty much the same; try not to get yourself into that situation of walking or biking alone, and run from a kidnapper or fight him or her if you must. With about 300 child kidnappings in the United States last year, it’s a good conversation to have but one rarely occurring as we focus instead on the less likely scenario of a school shooting.

Before I share the titles for my favorite preschool safety books, I’ll offer two other reasons to start or strengthen safety training discussions in your home, even with your youngest.

First, most child gun deaths occur at home. We have dozens of children shot and injured each year in school shootings, but about 400 children are killed by guns annually in homes, many accidentally shot by siblings and neighbor children. Parents and other adults are in the best position to teach these important safety lessons early, all without using frightening words like “active shooter” until and unless the time is right.

Second, when parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles take the lead on safety training about guns, nothing a child might hear in school will come as a surprise.

Whether you are worried about your three-year-old, seven-year-old or your high school junior, think about how much safety training even the youngest children get from the adults around them. By regularly discussing safety, enhancing the facts and variables as the kids mature, parents are in the driver’s seat to teach not only critical thinking skills, but also skills that may save a child’s life.

Child Safety Resources for Parents

As promised, here are some great books to teach safety to even the youngest toddlers.

For preschoolers, you can’t beat a series of award-winning books written by Heather Beal and illustrated by Jubayda Sagor. Her current books that should be on every preschooler’s shelf are Elephant Wind; A Tornado Safety Book for Children; Tummy Rumble Quake: An Earthquake Safety Book for Children; and Lions, Leopards and Storm, Oh My!: A Thunderstorm Safety Book. You can find them at Train 4 Safety Press. She wants the books to help parents, childcare providers, and caregivers talk to young children about disasters and other disturbing topics in a way that is empowering and does not frighten them.

The Elephant in the Room – A Lockdown Story was released in 2019 and is offered in both English and Spanish. This pre-K to 2-year-old book, written by Alicia Stenard and illustrated by Greg Matusicm, tells the story of students who must lockdown in the school to protect their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after a circus train accident leaves animals roaming about looking for food. The book focuses on teaching children to follow instructions and not panic, instead of on the negative circumstances leading to the lockdown.

The Ant Hill Disaster is written by Julia Cook and illustrated by Michelle Hazelwood. This pre-K through kindergarten book explores how a little boy and his community come together after his ant hill school is destroyed, and his fear about returning to school once a new school is built.

How Are You Peeling? and other similar books are offered by Scholastic Books to help teach children to express feelings. This book is a great way to begin discussing fear with children and how so many people are out there keeping them safe.

And finally, Sesame Street and the City of Houston developed their owns ways to talk to children about safety. Check out their free materials via the Internet.

There are so many ways to engage your little ones in safety discussions. Don’t let your own fears leave you to hope your child(ren)’s school will do it for you.

Katherine Schweit is a lawyer and former FBI Executive who currently teaches law classes at DePaul and Webster Universities. Schweit also owns Schweit Consulting LLC, providing security and leadership counseling, and safety training to hospitals, businesses, religious organizations, educators, and government clients.

Following the Sandy Hook school shooting, Schweit was assigned to head the FBI’s active shooter program. Through her extensive experience, she has come an expert in active shooters, mass shootings, and security policies and procedures.

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