This article was adapted from the podcast episode Navigating Lockdowns from an Educator’s Perspective with Dr. Becky Bailey, preschool teacher Tiffany Taylor, and fifth grade teacher Kristin Abel. Read more about how to manage lockdowns in Dr. Becky Bailey’s article, Navigating Lockdowns: How to Reduce Anxiety and Restore Safety.
Teachers are accustomed to students asking a wide range of curious questions. But what do you say when the question you get from a five-year-old child is, “What would we do if someone came into our school and started shooting?”
School violence has put teachers in the unique position of acting out life or death scenarios with young students. 95% of public schools now practice silently hiding from an imaginary gunman.
As you might expect, these drills sometimes lead to side effects like depression, ongoing anxiety, poor sleep, and worsening academic performance. Students have reported fainting, vomiting, and nightmares in response to these scary situations. This is not the nurturing learning environment we want to create for our students.
As an educator, here are five steps you can take to teach required lockdown procedures while lessening anxiety and trauma for your students.
#1 Promote the language of safety.
From the beginning of the school year, use the language of safety. Remind children that you are their Safekeeper, and it is your job to keep them safe.
Then, when lockdown drills occur, you can bring it back to safety: “This is how we keep each other safe. This is how we take care of each other.” Throughout the experience, say, “It’s okay. We can handle this. I will keep you safe.”
Fifth grade teacher Kristin Abel recalls a time when a child was particularly triggered during a real lockdown. A criminal was in the vicinity of the school, and the child was clinging to her. She told the boy, “I have a plan to protect you and keep you safe even if someone does come into the classroom.” This information helped him calm.
#2 Have visuals of the routine.
Visual routines are especially helpful for children, who store information in pictures. Post a step-by-step visual routine of your lockdown procedures.
Free Printable: Download the Guide to Navigating Lockdowns for reminders on how to establish safety and reduce anxiety before, during and after lockdown drills.
#3 Connect with your students.
Connections with your students establish trust. They are a key piece of helping children feel safe and calm in your classroom. Kristin Abel says, “The connections you make with your students are priceless, especially in these situations.”
Take time to get to know your students as individuals. Incorporate the elements of connection into your classroom: eye contact, touch, presence and a playful situation. With older children, joint attention also helps. Even inquiring about a child’s soccer game or discussing her favorite movie goes a long way.
Preschool teacher Tiffany Taylor adds that students should connect with as many teachers and faculty members as possible. It’s important for them to understand that the entire staff is made up of Safekeepers.
#4 Teach self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your thoughts, feelings and emotions in service of a goal. During times of stress or fear, it’s a vital skill. But if you wait until children already feel stressed or afraid to teach self-regulation, it’s too late.
Wishing Well is a way to calm ourselves while offering compassion to others. To Wish Well: 1) Put your hands over your heart, 2) Take a deep breath in, 3) Pause and picture something precious in your mind, and 4) Breathe out while opening your arms and sending loving thoughts to the person you are wishing well.
Model these skills, and teach them to children when they’re calm. In times of upset or distress, encourage children to use these skills. Practice using them yourself too. When unexpected situations like lockdowns occur, you and your students will be ready to manage your emotions.
Kristin Abel says that for her, the Safe Place has also been essential. The Safe Place is a self-regulation center where children can practice changing their inner state from upset to calm. During lockdowns, Tiffany Taylor uses a mobile Safe Place with tactile resources, as well as silent songs and silent I Love You Rituals, with her preschoolers.
#5 Decompress afterwards
After the lockdown drill is over, take some time to decompress with your students and help them transition back to learning. Ask questions like, “What were you feeling?” and, “How did it go for you?” Share how you felt and what your experience was like as well.
Children who are experiencing anxiety may also have a lot of “What if…?” questions. Answer these questions until students feel comfortable and calm again.
As Kristin Abel says, “This is more important than finishing math and science right now. Plus, many students aren’t in a brain state to learn and understand math at the moment.”
If the lockdown was in response to an actual threat, you’ll need to spend more time helping children process the experience. After the real lockdown at Kristin’s school, she led a class meeting about it the following day after her daily Brain Smart Start.
By ensuring that children feel safe and connected and giving them the tools to self-regulate, you’ll help them navigate lockdowns and other stressful situations they encounter in life. In addition, you’ll minimize the trauma and anxiety that results from these jarring experiences. And you’ll help your students return to the executive state, where they’re ready to get back to the task of learning.