Develop and Maintain School Operational Capacity with Scenario-Based Training

Planning, as well as using current training opportunities and plausible, realistic scenarios will enable most schools to greatly improve their safety training and exercise programs.
Published: October 25, 2021

Developing a school staff’s capacity to respond in an emergency is always problematic. Time for training effectively is always the concern. Teachers jealously protect precious student-contact and instructional time. Understandably so, with education as their mission priority. And it is not as if teachers don’t already train. They train constantly; on the new math or reading program, the newest in instructional technology, special education law, and a dozen and one other things directly related to education.

So, the question for school administrators is simple: how do you make the most of limited opportunities to provide training in school emergency response?

Schools face a wide variety of potential incidents, from a natural disaster to violence. At the onset of the incident is not the time to determine or even question what the response should be.  Anyone who has coached understands the old saying “Practice what you want to play, because you will play what you practice.” With that as a basis, the most effective training is based on a plausible, realistic scenario and the application of your school’s plan to that situation.

All scenario-based training, whether it’s a full-scale exercise, a functional exercise or a tabletop, allows for the direct application of the expected response to a potential event in a much lower stress environment. In educational terms this is guided practice to facilitate learning. As the understanding of your school’s expected responses deepen, the confidence of everyone involved deepens as well.

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A real incident on campus will be unexpected, confusing and likely more than a bit chaotic. Confidence in the response by everyone in a school community is critical to mitigate the incident’s potential impact. A training and exercise program rooted in the use of scenarios will serve to develop that confidence… confidence by your staff in both the process and their ability to execute, and confidence by your students in both their teachers and the process.

It is important to build the scenario to develop capacity and test the process.

First, never schedule any exercise without a well-developed plan and clearly established goal for the process. Always reserve time for an after-action exercise review. The review or “Lessons Learned” process is a critical element of any exercise. Exercises are a great way to test and improve a plan. They are a poor way to determine that you need a plan. “Let’s hold an exercise and see what happens”, is certain to annoy your staff and make it that much more difficult to get willing and engaged participation the next time.

Developing a schools staff’s capacity is best done in stages. Consider a “Crawl – Walk – Run” progression. There are exercises appropriate for each stage. In the Crawl or introduction stage, a tabletop exercise can be the perfect tool. A tabletop exercise simulates an emergency situation in a low stress environment. Participants discuss scenarios presented, general problems and procedures in the context of response to a specific incident.

Once your staff has a basic understanding of the process to be used, a tabletop exercise should be scheduled. Remember this is a low-pressure opportunity for your staff to apply the procedure. Consider the use of an actual event that addresses the need for your response.

Campus Safety recently published a series of these scenarios, and Idaho’s School Safety and Security Program has a number of potential incidents for use on their website:

Present the scenario and allow your staff to process through the application to the procedure to the incident. Remember to leave time to review the response.

A functional exercise is a “Walk through” of one of your response protocols. The best-known scenario-based functional exercise is the monthly fire drill, required in most jurisdictions.  Sadly, for too many schools this drill has become perfunctory, a required and annoying interruption to instruction and a mindless race to the fence. Add a bit of creativity, however, and this can be a golden opportunity to develop capacity.

By this point nearly everyone in a school can move a group of students from the classroom to an outdoor rally location and account for the students. The usual scenario is easy, and the unusual scenario is a bit more difficult. Consider, develop and exercise plans for evacuation during those unstructured periods: immediately before and immediately after school, at passing time, during lunch, at recess and during a school assembly.

The goal is still the same: get them out, get them accounted for, get ready for the next step. The process will be altered and will need work. Any functional exercise can be treated in the same fashion. Look for opportunities beyond the conventional drill, and build capacity by considering what could happen and how you will respond.

Full-scale exercises are always scenario-based. They are exceptional learning opportunities, but they are also time, labor and staff intensive. Generally, a full-scale exercise will require multiple agencies’ involvement and coordination and an extended planning process. This is not something you can pull off quickly or with out considerable effort, nor should you try. A word of caution here, a poorly planned or executed full-scale exercise can damage your creditability and your exercise program.

Developing capacity is one thing. Maintaining capacity is entirely another. Schools are plagued by high transiency in both staff and students. Add to this itinerant staff, substitutes, volunteers and visitors, and the magnitude of the task becomes apparent. Several things can help to limit this adverse impact on schools.

First is a district-wide common school emergency response platform. This will allow for an initial new hire training process. Additionally, this process, once developed, can be extended to school volunteers. While there are changes necessary to address facility differences, the common elements will be similar at all district campuses. This same common-approach logic applies to students transferring around the district, as well.

A robust training and exercise program should be the goal of every school. Robust does not mean time consuming. It does mean effective use of the training opportunities currently available. Make sure that the mandated drills are effectively used as training opportunities. Simply scheduling a drill is not the same as planning an exercise.

Consider the addition of a “Safety Minute” to every meeting held at a school.  Again, this need not be time consuming. A quick review of one of the school’s procedures or short tabletop based on a recent incident should take less than ten minutes. Beyond training (or retraining) there is a hidden benefit in this process. It will reaffirm the school’s commitment to school safety and help with the development of a school-wide safety culture.

A bit of thought, a small amount of planning, effective use of current training opportunities and an emphasis the use of plausible, realistic scenarios, and most schools can greatly enhance their training and exercise programs.  The outcome for your school will be a more effective staff in an emergency and ultimately safer students.

Resources for school safety training and exercise development are readily available from the REMS/TA Center, from  Homepage | and from most states school safety centers.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series