Share on Pinterest
Active shooter drills in schools can increase stress and anxiety for some students, but parents can help their children better cope in a number of ways. Getty Images
  • Many schools in the United States perform active shooter drills to help prepare students and staff for possible shooting events.
  • Although the drills are well intentioned, some parents question whether they’re going too far and harming kids in the process.
  • Experts recommend that parents take steps to help their children better cope with the impact of active shooter drills.

As school shootings have become more commonplace in the United States, many schools have responded proactively by having students practice active shooter drills.

In fact, in the 2015-16 school year, 92 percent of public schools reported having a procedure in place for dealing with shooting events.

Active shooter drills are directed at helping students, teachers, and school staff practice what they would do in the event of an actual shooter on campus.

They’re most often carried out using a lockdown approach. In this approach, everyone is directed to find cover and lock the door.

In these drills, a staff member may play the role of the shooter, moving from door to door, jiggling doorknobs, while the children do their best to remain quiet. Some schools even up the realism by using fake blood and “dead” bodies.

As these types of drills become more a part of our everyday lives, however, some parents are asking whether we’re going too far.

Julie Mahfood, a mother of two middle schoolers, who resides in Quebec, Canada, told Healthline she thinks the more realistic drills are “grotesque.”

“We don’t prepare fake scenes of any other kind of death for practice. That’s just ridiculous and completely disgusting, disrespectful, and irresponsible,” she said.

Kristi Davis, a West Virginia mother of a middle schooler, also feels active shooter drills may be going too far.

“We don’t rip off the roof to do a tornado drill or set the kitchen on fire for a fire drill. Common sense is needed in these situations,” she said.

Oliver Sammons, an Oklahoma grandfather of three elementary school students, takes a different point of view. He believes that realistic drills can help “lessen their revulsion to real injuries and increase the likelihood they will respond in a positive way by treating injuries and saving lives instead of being overwhelmed by the scene.”

“The intention is good,” said Sharon Hoover, PhD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.

“Schools want students to be prepared in the event that there is an intruder. At the same time, there are practices being used in some drills that may be misguided and risk causing psychological harm to students,” she said.

Hoover notes there are pros and cons to active shooter drills.

“There is some data to suggest that shooter/intruder drills increase students’ confidence in how to deal with an intruder and may increase their sense of safety. There is also some data that indicates that, at least for some students (and teachers), intruder drills can be frightening and cause distress.

“We do not have a lot of empirical data on the psychological impact of active shooter/intruder drills. However, there are many anecdotes of teachers, parents and students describing the fear and distress associated with these drills,” Hoover said.

According to Daniel S. Marullo, PhD, clinical psychologist at Children’s of Alabama, how children respond to active shooter drills will depend on several factors:

  • Developmental level. Younger children, and even some teens, may have a more difficult time understanding that the drill isn’t real and may feel threatened.
  • The type of drill. Younger children may respond differently to drills that involve play-acting a scenario rather than simply receiving verbal instructions about what to do.
  • How children are prepared for drills. According to guidance prepared by the National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Resource Officers, discussion-based exercises should occur first so children are prepared for what’s happening.

Marullo says that age and developmental level will influence the signs of distress children might exhibit.

Younger children may have trouble expressing what they’re feeling or may not make the connection that what they’re feeling is related to fear or distress.

“Younger children, but also older children and teens, may tell you truthfully that they do not know how they feel, or whether what they feel is sadness, anger, or anxiety,” he added.

Marullo says parents should look to unusual changes in their child’s behavior as a clue that they’re not coping well with active shooter drills.

For example, an outgoing child might suddenly become more reserved, or a happy-go-lucky child might become very irritable.

“Regression in behavior is also a common sign of distress in children and teens,” Marullo said. “For example, an independent teen is now clingier with a parent, or a child that has been toilet trained is now having toileting accidents or bedwetting.”

Marullo added that, in most cases, “children’s distress is temporary and a normal reaction to a stressful event, but some children can develop a disorder.”

According to Marullo, parents should seek out help from a mental health professional if behavioral changes become persistent, are interfering with the child’s life, or the child is engaging in self-injury or talking about suicide.

While active shooter drills may be potentially distressing for some children, there’s much parents can do to help mitigate the effects. Some of the steps that parents can take include:

Learn what your school’s drills involve

Lawrence Tyson, PhD, associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education, suggests that parents prepare for speaking with their child by calling the school counselor or administrator and inquiring about their drills.

“How often do they occur? What do they look like? How is law enforcement involved? What precautions has the school taken to limit access? What processing do the students/faculty go through after such drills?” he said are questions parents should be asking to make sure they’re fully informed about the drills.

Tailor your approach based on your child’s age

Once you know exactly what’s happening in your school’s drills, tailor your approach based on the age of your child in one of the following three ways:

1. For children in elementary school

“Elementary-age children tend to have feelings around if this could happen to those they love and where are safe places. These children are the ones who are most likely to act out,” Tyson said.

It’s important that “adults should listen, listen, listen, and reassure,” Tyson said.

Hoover notes that in the case of younger children, it’s not necessarily helpful to mention that you’re doing the drills in case of a shooter.

It could simply be explained to them that we do drills “to keep them safe in case there is a situation in the community or school where they need to be protected.”

2. For children in middle school

“Middle school students tend to be very emotional one minute and adult-like in their thinking the next,” Tyson noted. “Adults in their lives should continually reassure and convey feelings of safety, but most of all listen and observe behavior.”

3. For teens in high school

“High school students are very pragmatic,” Tyson said. “As students work through the trauma, they begin to question authority.”

Ask your child questions to see how they’re doing

Hoover suggests asking your child questions before, during, and after the drills to gauge how they’re feeling.

Ask them things like:

  • Do you feel comfortable about the drills?
  • Do you worry about the drills?
  • How do you feel before, during, and after drills?

Observe their behavior

Hoover also advises parents to look to their child’s behavior for clues about how they’re feeling.

Students may show fear, worry or tearfulness. They might start avoiding school or say they have stomachaches or headaches. They might also have nightmares or talk about feeling unsafe.

Remind them that they’re safe

Hoover says it’s important to remind children that school is a very safe place, and that it’s very unlikely there will be a shooting event at their school, despite the fact that heavy media coverage can make it appear that way.

Remind them they have people to talk to

“All students can be reminded that if they feel worried or upset before, during, or after drills that there are adults they can speak to about those feelings,” Hoover said.

Provide them with coping strategies

“They can also be provided with helpful thoughts, like, ‘This is just a drill,'” Hoover said.

Hoover also points out that parents can help their kids by teaching them techniques to calm their anxiety, such as deep breathing or mindfulness exercises.