Reduce student worry during emergency response drills
October 5, 2016
Emergency response drills require regular practice
Schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for children, staff, volunteers and visitors. Careful preparation, planning and regular practice drills are designed to equip staff to react quickly and calmly, to act in a coordinated and thoughtful manner and to minimize the risk of harm to all present, particularly children, in the event of an emergency. The aim is to reduce fear, panic and trauma.
Types of emergency incidents
- Lockdown/Lock-in e.g. a student, parent or other person is aggressive or violent and has not been contained by teachers, the principal or the police, or an intruder is on-site and is unknown or is perceived as a risk.
- On-site evacuation e.g. serious or fatal car or other accident in sight of those at or near the school, on-site major water leak, indoor flooding, electrical issue or structural damage to the building.
- Off-site evacuation e.g. chemical hazard, fire, gas leak, explosion, bomb threat, hostage, siege or terrorist attack. An off-site evacuation site is a designated local park or community centre that has water, shade, shelter and toilets available.
Children can be especially vulnerable to experiencing feelings of loss of safety, fear or apprehension following exposure to such events.
Student focused preparation
Long-term preparation begins by helping all students (and others in the school) to develop a strong sense of community and connection. This occurs inside and outside the school space, by involving students in local excursions and incursions, community walks and visits, working in community gardens at local centres or parks. These type of activities, along with regular emergency incident drills can assist students to feel at ease moving within on-site and off-site locations.
Practice drills should be undertaken at least once each term. Students should not know that the drill is a practice so that panic and fear is reduced in a real emergency situation.
You can tell them later it was a drill, explaining and reinforcing the need to move calmly as directed by teachers. Students need to practice moving from one location to another without becoming worried or distressed.
Key things teachers can do to support students who are apprehensive or worried
- Let students know that feeling inconvenienced, annoyed, scared or apprehensive by evacuations or lockdowns is normal. The fear or annoyance will subside as students get to know the procedures to be adopted during various emergencies.
- Provide perspective. Let students know that moving from one location to another is designed to keep everyone safe. Answer questions, or correct inaccurate information honestly, simply and age-appropriately.
- Provide a sense of safety and control. Appropriate training for staff and students ensures that everyone is well rehearsed during an emergency. Designated teachers should carry a light evacuation pack that might contain first aid equipment, EpiPen, a mobile phone, bottled water, sunscreen, sun-hat, sunglasses, a light thermal blanket, matches and a whistle.
- Watch for vulnerable students. Students who have experienced trauma can be vulnerable in a drill situation and may show signs of agitation. Any students who are known to have fled war-torn countries, experienced a natural disaster or suffered the death of a close family member can become more distressed in a drill and perceive it as threatening. Make sure vulnerable students are partnered with competent friends, teachers or teacher aides throughout the drill.
- Promote coping behaviours. Have students identify things they can do to help them feel better such as talking with their buddy, playing games such as ‘I spy …’ or ‘20 questions’. Older students in pairs or groups of four, could discuss the benefits of the natural and built facilities available at the off-site or on-site evacuation site, particularly while students are assembled or waiting during the evacuation. For students who use a walking frame or walking sticks, a wheel chair (stored at school) may be less fatiguing during an off-site evacuation.
- Focus on facilitating a return to the normal operations of the classroom and school, once the drill (or an emergency situation) is contained or resolved. In pairs or groups of four, brainstorm arguments to convince and reassure parents that off-site or on-site evacuation experiences support a student’s learning and wellbeing.
Review what has happened
After the event, talk about the evacuation or lock down scenario in terms that students can understand. Teachers need to put limits in place to contain conversations that might encourage fear. This might mean protectively interrupting students who begin to disclose personal experience of a trauma situation. As you know, teachers should also be mindful of disclosing their own experiences.
It is important for teachers to model coping behaviour. Students look to teachers for information and understanding. They also look to teachers for reassurance that key adults are watching out to keep them safe. After the drill provide further reassurance by talking to students about community safety plans and the role of police, SES and community agencies in protecting our schools and communities.
Any student who is upset as a result of an emergency response practice drill should be debriefed, usually by a senior staff member (or school counsellor with parent permission). The child’s parents should be notified and reassured that ongoing preparation, planning and practice are designed to reduce fear, panic and trauma should an emergency incident occur.
Traumatic events at school
Typically, if a traumatic event occurs at school or during school hours, the principal decides, in consultation with others, on the type and level of support to assist anyone who may have experienced, witnessed or learned about a life-threatening or traumatic event. Education departments and other school governing authorities generally provide psychological advice and direct support following these critical incidents or emergency management situations.
Most students who experience, witness or hear about a traumatic event will recover after several days, however for some it might take several weeks.
It is important that you and/or a senior staff member discuss any concerns about a student with their parents. If the student has been displaying concerning behaviours for more than one month following a traumatic event, it is recommended that you refer them, via their parents, to a psychologist or the family doctor.
For more comprehensive information, a list of concerning behaviours, and classroom strategies to support a child affected by emergency incidents, Psych4Schools members can access the ebooklets:
- Working with children who fear life-threatening events (war, terrorism, disasters, pandemics) and
- Working with children who have experienced trauma in the past two weeks.
Not a member? Click here to join today or read a free excerpt of the ebooklets in our Free resources section.
Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist