Age-appropriate suggestions for parents and caregivers
Talking to your children about new safety drills at school is important and necessary, and it’s helpful to practice what you plan to say ahead of time. Below are some tips for talking to your children about safety, depending on their age:
Children in grades K-2:
- After a brief explanation of a safety-related issue, let your child take the lead. Ask your child what questions he or she has and provide simple, age-appropriate answers, ideally in 1 to 2 sentences. Avoid providing too many details or alerting them to all possible sources of danger at school and in our communities.
- The most important thing for a young child to know is that if there is an emergency, they need to follow directions from trusted adults to keep them safe.
- Be sure to communicate to your child that most people are good or nice and that school is a safe place. Work with your child to identify “helpers” or people he or she can go to in various settings for help.
Children in grades 3-5:
- After giving a brief explanation of a safety-related issue, let your child take the lead. Ask your child what questions he or she has and provide simple, direct answers that address their questions. Letting school-age children guide the conversation allows them to be the in charge of what and how much they want to hear.
- Be sure to communicate to your child that most people are good or caring and that school is generally a safe place. Reinforce the need for your child to listen and follow instructions from trusted adults during emergencies.
- During safety-related discussions, your child may ask you difficult questions. Recognize that when children ask tough questions such as “Could a shooting happen at my school?,” what they often want to know is if they are safe. In these instances, it is a good idea to talk about how these events are very rare, that there are many people in the child’s life who are working to keep him or her safe, and that there are many more good people in the world than there are bad.
If your child shows concern, help him or her to identify and name their feelings. Let them know it is OK to feel scared or worried, and weave in positive or hopeful messages. For example: “You are feeling scared or worried. That is normal and makes sense. It is okay to feel that way. Your teachers and I are here to keep you safe and you can talk to us anytime if you feel scared.”
You can also create a safety plan together as a family and review it regularly.
Here is an example of how you can introduce school shooting drills to your child:
“Your teacher told me that you are going to start doing “safety” drills or lessons at school. That means you and your class are going to start practicing how to stay safe if there is an emergency at school. You may be learning things like how to run or hide. Emergencies or other scary things don’t happen a lot, but you need to practice these exercises or drills so that you know what to do if one does happen. The most important thing to know is that your teachers, helpers, and other grown- ups in charge are there to keep you safe at school. If something scary happens at school, you need to listen to them and do what they say right away.”
When using a sensitive, developmentally appropriate approach to discussing safety with your child, it is unlikely that he or she will exhibit signs of distress. However, if you observe the following symptoms in your child, consider talking to your pediatrician or mental health provider:
- Changes in behavior, such as increased irritability, anger, crying, or worry
- Regression in previously mastered skills, including toileting, sleeping, or self-care difficulties or excessive clinginess toward parents or teachers
- Refusal to go to school
- Trouble concentrating or paying attention
- Increased physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
Resources for families about personal safety
- My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky
- I Can Play It Safe by Alison Feigh
- I Can Be Safe: A First Look at Safety book series by Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker
- Watch Out! book series by Claire Llewellyn
- Sesame Street Communities
- Be Aware: My Tips for Personal Safety by Gina Bellisario
- Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe by Gavin DeBecker
The Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s in St. Petersburg, Florida, provides services in psychiatry, psychology, neuropsychology and pediatric developmental medicine. We serve families living throughout the Tampa Bay area.
For more information or to make an appointment, please call 727-767-8477.