Lockdown Drill Language for Younger Students

School safety is a chief concern.

There was a day when children didn’t think about their safety while at school. But with all the news coverage about school and workplace violence, and parents’ concerns for their children’s well-being, safety and lockdown drills become more and more a topic of discussion. So how might we approach school safety in a way that helps our children feel safe? How can we avoid feeding their fears of danger at school on any given day?

About a month ago, my grandson went to kindergarten orientation at his future school. He asks me every single time we’ve been together since, “Does that guy have a gun?” Those he has mistrusted include an usher at a children’s play and the fellow who was taking the sound equipment down at the altar of a church. Suddenly, for the first time, nearly everyone he doesn’t know is suspect in his mind.  His new little mantra looping in his thoughts that he sometimes mutters audibly? “I don’t want to get shot with a gun.” Overnight, he underwent this dramatic change, and he hasn’t even experienced a drill yet!


Lockdown drills, even though they’re meant to protect, can have a detrimental psychological effect.

While I shudder to think why we must have drills in the first place, I’m encouraged that so many administrators and school counselors ask us what language engenders the least fear relative to lock down drills for elementary students. People recognize that we can lessen the detrimental psychological aspects by more carefully choosing our words! And while we consider the language, we also need to think about how we can include other actions. Consider these two lockdown drill scenarios:

Testing doors

In some schools drills, people test classroom doors to ensure they are locked.  Little ones who thought it was a lockdown drill were suddenly certain that the lockdown was real and that “the bad guy” was trying to get into their room. (In this scenario, if your concern is that your teachers will forgot to lock their doors, practice that on an in-service day when there are no students in the building.)


When doing lock-down drills collaborating with local law enforcement, some schools have used students dressed up as shooters and others all made up to look bloody who role played the injured. One of two things happens when we saturate students’ minds with shooting issues:

  1. One is that they become inured to others’ pain and role play it and “have fun.”
  2. The other is that it contributes to the rise in depression and a sense of hopelessness youth are experiencing in increasing numbers.  Students and staff are not likely to expect that this will be the outcome for some; it is in retrospect that some students say things like, “I can’t get this out of my mind.  I still hear the students screaming.”

Lockdown Drills language to encourage saftey rather than fear

What are the risk statistics?

But before we talk about how to handle the dangers, let’s take a moment to talk about the dangers themselves. As much as we hear about violence in schools and as tragic as these events are when they splash across our news feed, we need to keep things in perspective. (And by no means are we minimizing this problem — it’s one reason we’ve developed the 5 Radical Minutes program. We see, we know, and we are striving to be part of the solution for a safer world.)

US Statistics

Lightning strikes and kills more people each year than the number of students who die in school shootings each year. Lightening strikes on the athletic field endanger students and adults. Despite these statistics, very few schools have practices or procedures specific to a broad variety of emergencies. For many schools, the major focus for catastrophic events is on armed intruders. Schools practice lockdown drills for shootings but have no lightning response plan or transportation emergency plan, yet the danger is high for each.


It’s important to de-escalate student emotions while we drill.

Amid our own anxiety about teaching students what to do relative to armed intruders, adults often forget the importance of a student’s emotional response to these drills. What can we do to mitigate their fear? How can we de-escalate the emotions while we drill instead of planting fear and terrifying possibilities into children’s minds? How can we address school safety in a way that empowers them instead of suggesting danger? If this were really about saving the most lives we can, we’d be addressing the number who will die of gunshot events outside of school.  Note that 1,562 children will die by gunshot outside of school for every one that dies in school.


Lockdown Drills language can communite safety and togetherness

Safety Drills Encourage Togetherness

There is a huge psychological boost to students and teachers alike when we simply call these safety drills. It’s turns something scary into something positive. And it communicates that “We’re concerned about your safety,” rather than “We live in a dangerous world.”

Some drills could be for emergencies outside the classroom. Teachers can work with students on how to be safe inside together. Some drills could be for emergencies that happen within the classroom. Teachers can focus on moving to safety together in those circumstances. (Notice that the focus is on safety together.)

These alternative ways of framing intruder or lockdown drills make a big difference. This “safety together” focus can do much to encourage students to think of themselves as an empowered group working together rather than vulnerable individuals reacting in fear. Any time we can pull in the marginalized and unite a group is a good day. Our students are proving their shared courage as they rise to the challenges their generations face. Let’s do all we can to keep encouraging them and stem the fear!


Click here to download specific wording recommendations for various age groups.