Mom Questions 4-Year-Old's 'Nightmare' School Drill

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More than 20 states require lockdown-style drills in school. Whether your child gets anxious about it may largely depend on how you react. (Photo by Getty Images)

As a parent, I skew toward alarmist. So when I recently learned, after the fact, that my 4-year-old son’s preschool class practiced a lockdown drill requiring him to hide in the bathroom with the other boys, while the girls went into a closet with another teacher, I admit I freaked out.

His teachers’ explanations that the practice functioned like a routine fire drill didn’t do much to dissipate fears that my little boy would be forever scarred by nightmares about the ominous “intruder” who turned his safe haven into a danger zone. And when I discovered that these drills would expand into evacuations to the nearby woods this spring, the whole thing started to give me nightmares.

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Turns out I’m not alone – both in my upset and apparent irrationality. “Adults outside of schools, especially some parents and other outside observers, tend to be much more shocked and nervous with the concept of lockdowns than are our kids,” National School Safety and Security Services’ president Kenneth Trump told The New York Times last year. “The majority of today’s generation of students and school staff view lockdowns as a routine part of the school culture just as we have viewed fire drills for many years.”

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In other words, the lockdown drills that I view as a scary testament to the perilousness of life in the age of mass shootings, my son and other children see as just another skill to learn. (When I asked my boy about his “hiding” adventure, his reaction was pretty blasé, truth be told). Kids nationwide, as young as 3, are growing up with the practice, after all. More than 20 states require lockdown-style drills, and 30 mandate school emergency plans, according to the Times. The protocol that my son’s school follows, A.L.I.C.E. – “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate” training “to prepare individuals to handle the threat of an Active Shooter,” according to their website – is implemented in 1700 public school districts across the country.

“It doesn’t have to be the stuff of nightmares,” Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, tells Yahoo Parenting of drills for the younger set. “Like so many things in life, it’s not the ‘what’ that’s as important as the ‘how.’ If they practice, and it’s done matter of fact-ly, the drill will seem like a non-event and kids are less likely to get anxious about it.”

Parents play a big part in this perception. “It’s important not to fuel kids’ anxiety,” he says. “Children at preschool age naturally and normally have many fears that come and go; the monster at night and all kinds of things. But if you put in other sources of anxiety, that makes it a tough experience for the child.”

Individual temperament is a factor to consider. The child who hugs your leg at the playground before joining in play with other kids, and those who already tend to be more anxious or tend to withdraw, might need special attention to ensure that he doesn’t get anxious about drills, says Kazdin. “But anxiety-provoking experiences may be fine for kids if they’re executed well and made to feel like just another part of kids’ day.”

So if your child doesn’t ask you about what happened or why, just let it go and don’t dwell, he advises. And if kids do ask, keep your responses specific, Kazdin adds. “I liken it to how you should handle the sex talk. Just answer the questions asked, no more, to the level they’re asked.” Parents aren’t transparent all the time anyway, he points out. “You don’t tell them the truth about the Easter Bunny or Santa. We do all kinds of things to help children enjoy going through development.”

And the reality is, like it or not, lockdown drills are essential, A.L.I.C.E. founder and president Greg Crane tells Yahoo Parenting. “I equate it to ‘stranger danger’ teaching that kids receive,” says the former SWAT team member who developed the program for his elementary school principal wife’s school post-Columbine. “A lot of schools I talk with incorporate that in preschool. When I ask, ‘How many parents say ‘Don’t talk to my children about that situation?’ the number of parents who opt out is well under 1 percent. Most people are already having these discussions. The only difference between stranger danger and A.L.I.C.E. is that that stranger is coming into the school.”

The best way to convey this information at a young age is a combination of parents and teachers, says Crane, whose organization puts out a couple of books for elementary classrooms, including I’m Not Scared… I’m Prepared. “Why do you practice getting out of a building in a fire?” he asks. “Building that muscle memory. It’s like anything else in life, if don’t practice it, how else are you going to be able to do it?”

Video of A.L.I.C.E. training session at an elementary school in Akron, Ohio.

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