How to Talk With Kids About Active Shooter Incidents [With Resources for Parents and Teachers]
This post is a guide for how to talk with kids about active-shooter events. Additional Resources can be found at the bottom of this page.
The truth is, bad people sometimes do horrible things and parents should talk with children – preparing them for emergencies: even something as terrible as an active shooter.
These discussions are not always easy, but all of us, even kids, are already thinking about it and ignoring the issue is not going to make anyone safer.
Like other emergency situations, such as fires or earthquakes, discussing the potential danger will enhance safety and decrease anxiety, so long as the discussions are age-appropriate.
The Value of Age-Appropriate Safety Training
As a society, we have accepted and embraced the need for safety-related education program for kids. For instance, Stop, Drop and Roll is taught to children as what to do if they catch fire. If not presented in an age-appropriate manner, this could traumatize a child with the fear of being burned alive. But the concept is presented in an age-appropriate manner and children are the safer for it.
Fire safety efforts have been so successful that that no child has died as the result of fire in a U.S. school over 50 years. These efforts should be expanded to address all hazards that pose a credible risk to children.
Teddy is Ready – Teaching Children to be Prepared
In an effort to expand upon the successes of fire safety, SafePlans’ CEO, Brad Spicer, wrote a children’s book called Teddv is Ready. The book uses age-appropriate language and examples to help parents and teachers communicate preparedness to their children and students.
The book explains to children that fire and other emergencies can happen, and that learning about these types of situations works to make them even safer.
Teddy is Ready helps kids visualize a successful response to a bad situation, so they are less likely to panic during an actual emergency.
Mental visualization is a vital element of emergency preparedness – thinking about how you will respond is every bit as important as conducting a drill or training. In the book, when Teddy thinks about a safety-related topic, he pictures himself as Captain Ready.
Captain Ready never does anything dangerous; he simply sets the example for other kids to emulate. This mindset is important for all emergencies but especially for an active shooter-type incident.
The Dangers of Teaching Children to Fight an Active Shooter
For more than 20 years, SafePlans has pioneered national active shooter defense training programs that reinforce the Run-Hide-Fight active-shooter survival options – but these programs were designed for businesses, not schools.
Young children should never be taught the fight response. Studies have shown that young people (and even most adults) lack the ability to discern what is truly a last resort. Additionally, kids do not possess the physical ability to fight an attacker.
An Active Shooter is not a Tornado Drill
Running away from an attacker is not only a viable option, it is very often the best option.
We’ve seen evidence of this from the tragedy at Sandy Hook: during the attack, the nine students who fled classroom 10 were the only people who survived from that classroom. This is not to suggest that there would be no fatalities if everyone fled; but it can be assumed that additional lives could have been saved.
However, the run option is a considerable paradigm shift from the school lockdown drills that many young parents and teachers grew up participating in.
The reality is: a moving target is dramatically harder to shoot – the act of running can remove a child from the field of fire.
Remaining stationary and waiting for law enforcement does not make children safer, when in direct contact with an active killer. This includes playing dead. Playing dead can only work if others around you are already dead. This is not a concept that should be discussed with children.
How to apply AlerT Concepts in an Age-Appropriate Manner
While our AlerT (Assess, lockdown, evade, resist, and Tell) system was designed specifically for schools; the application of AlerT concepts should be applied and taught to account for the inteded audience.
It is not realistic to expect young children to assess options. If a child is with a teacher, the teacher will assess. If the child is alone, they are likely either:
1) not in a classroom, or
2) in a classroom where the teacher has been incapacitated. Regardless, absent adult leadership, the child’s best option is likely to evade.
A lockdown uses the classroom to provide protection via access control and cover (protection from gunfire). Do NOT encourage them to just hide under a table.
Teach them how to lock doors and move away from door vision panels so they cannot be seen.
The goal of a lockdown is to keep the bad person out of the room. If the bad person does find them; tell them to run away.
The act of running away and moving is more important than specifying a destination.
Make sure they understand that they are what matters, not their things – backpacks and other things can be replaced.
People are more important than things. Just run.
Take time to discuss safe places that are very close to the school, such as a church, another school or even a fire station. Tell them a place they could run to in case the teacher does not, or cannot, help them – give them a destination they can visualize.
Depending on the age of the child, you can explain that when they run, they can use any exit or window available to them to get away and explain to them what “EXIT” signs are. For instance, if they are in a school cafeteria, it would be ok to run through the kitchen to escape.
The “resist” option in AlerT is for adults – telling a child to fight an active shooter is not recommended. Their best option is to evade and escape.
In our book Teddy is Ready, we explain that Teddy does not have super powers – neither does your child. Teddy is a hero because he chooses to be prepared and not scared. Help your child be a hero by talking with them about this incredibly important topic.
If your child does have to evade and is not with a teacher, they should know nearby safe places where they can go and tell what happened. This can be a nearby school. house of worship, business or government office.
The goal is not to have children evade without adult supervision – but to prepare them if the adult cannot help.
Children should know that being afraid is a completely normal response to an emergency. They should also understand that even though they might be afraid, they can still take measures to protect themselves. When we are frightened, not wanting to move can be a totally normal, yet unhelpful response. Taking deep breaths is a very effective way to help control anxiety during a scary situation.
Children need to understand that if they feel they are in danger, they have permission to get away. If they see a bad person with a gun or someone hurting others, it’s time to run to safety – Stranger Danger is not a new concept.
When to Have the Discussion – Timing is Everything
Dinnertime can be a good window to discuss the topic of preparedness with children. This is a period of time that does not create anxiety before school, giving the child plenty of time to ask questions and process the information before bedtime.
Key Points to Emphasize to Students
- It is OK to run away from someone that is trying to hurt you or others.
- If at school, follow the teacher’s instructions; however, you may have to run away without the teacher.
- Know your neighborhood and the area around the school. Identify safe places, such as a church or fire station, that you could go to if you had to run away from the school.
Help Your Children Prepare
Protecting our children is incredibly important and terribly imperfect, but understanding how to talk to your kids about an active shooter will help them be more prepared.
Additional Resources for Teachers and Parents:
- Teddy is Ready and the Teddy is Ready Teacher’s Guide are available for purchase on Amazon – please visit our Teddy is Ready Site for custom branded or large orders.
- Register for free Active Shooter Defense Resources for Parents and Students.