Insights and Impact

Speaking Up About Locking Down

Every day across the United States, 16 elementary and secondary institutions go on lockdown. How can parents talk to their children about school shootings without weighing them down with terrifying “what-ifs”?


Mom and son talking

The images are seared into the nation’s collective memory: Swarms of shell-shocked teenagers, fingers laced atop their heads, sprint out of squat, brick buildings on a cool, spring afternoon while helicopters circle overhead and police officers, clad in body armor and clutching automatic rifles, race toward the carnage inside Columbine High School—a space that was supposed to be a sanctuary of learning.

Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting in the United States, but it was the first to play out live on national television. Perhaps that’s why, 20 years after two high school seniors gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado, memories of the Columbine massacre still send shudders down our spines.

It also marked the dawning of a deadly new era in American history.

According to the Washington Post, more than 228,000 students at 234 schools have experienced gun violence since the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999. The Post—whose grim tally topped 240 incidents as of mid-May—reports that at least 144 children, educators, and other people have been killed in school shootings since Columbine. Another 302 have been injured.

But the shock wave of school shootings extends far beyond the dead and the wounded to hordes of children—4.1 million during the 2017–18 school year, including 220,000 kindergartners and preschoolers—who huddle behind locked doors and in darkened storage closets during active shooter drills or lockdowns. 

Much like fire drills, which became commonplace in schools after a deadly blaze at Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels killed 92 students and three nuns in 1958, lockdown drills prepare teachers and students for the possibility that violence will erupt outside or within the walls of their institution. The number of schools participating in lockdown drills has more than doubled to 95 percent since 2004, becoming as much a part of the American educational experience as reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

Lockdowns can vary widely in practice and frequency from one school district to the next. Regulated by the states, some schools hold them every month—in addition to fire, severe weather, and other types of drills—while others practice lockdown procedures only once or twice a year. Some schools partner with local police, but many do not.

Teachers are instructed to pluck nearby students from the hallways and into their classrooms before locking the door, covering the windows, and killing the lights. Kids take shelter by building “forts” with desks and chairs, wedging themselves into their cubbies, or ducking into closets. Those students who are unlucky enough to be caught in the restroom during a drill are 
told to lock the stall and stand on the toilet seat, thus obscuring their feet, until given 
the “all clear” over the intercom system.

Most drills aren’t announced in advance to parents or students—sometimes not even to teachers—and are treated as “the real thing.” The stress, fear, and anxiety that can result from being instructed to hide from a predator prowling the halls—whether a person with 
a gun or, as smaller children are often told, a bear or a dog—is also 100 percent authentic. 

“Right now I’m scared to death. I need a warm soft hug . . . I hope that you are going to be okay with me gone,” wrote a terrified 12-year-old boy to his parents during a recent drill in Charlotte, North Carolina. Frightened children have also soiled themselves, experienced panic attacks, and penned wills on notebook paper, bequeathing their most prized possessions—a bike or an Xbox—to siblings and friends.   

Psychotherapist Nancy Kislin, CAS/BA ’86, is among growing number of educators and mental health professionals who are speaking out about the trauma experienced by some children subjected to frequent active shooter drills.

“No one is [considering] the impact of these drills on kids’ emotional health,” says Kislin, author of the new book, Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence. “That has become my mission: to help parents help their children grow up feeling safe and loved.”

In fact, safety is the cornerstone of Kislin’s message.

“Every conversation we have with our kids needs to start and end by telling them that they’re safe. [Nearly 57 million] children go to school every day without incident,” she says. “We have to be prepared, yes, but we shouldn’t live in fear.”

Fatalities that result from school shootings are amplified by the innocence of the victims and the senselessness of their deaths. But statistically, they are incredibly rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of death among 1- to 18-year-olds is “unintentional injury” due to fires, falls, drownings, and car accidents. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers. In 2017, 517 children ages 10 to 14 died at their own hand—more than triple the number of people who’ve been killed in school shootings over the last two decades. 

Like so many aspects of parenthood, talking to kids about lockdown drills and school shootings requires clear heads and warm hearts. Parents want children to be aware and prepared without crumbling under the weight of “what-ifs” that can stifle their confidence, curiosity, and sense of adventure. 

“The most important tool you have in this climate of fear is yourself. The best investment you can make, better than the right soccer coach or math tutor, is devoting time and energy to helping your child learn to deal with life’s challenges,” writes Kislin. “I have found that the kids who best demonstrate resilience, empathy, and motivation are those whose parents spend significant quality time with them and understand the most comforting way to talk with them about today’s school violence issues.” 

American chatted with Kislin, herself the mother of two daughters, about how to strike that delicate balance.

Q. You say calm parents raise calm kids. That can be easier said than done when it comes to talking about school violence. 

Our kids are like little sponges, and we have to model how to manage anxiety. You can show your child that you’re upset—but you also have to show them you’re in control. Don’t text your child 10 times a day when they’re at school to make sure they’re safe. If you do that, you’re telling them that you don’t trust that the system you send them to every day is capable of keeping them safe.

Q. What’s the best way to handle news of a school shooting?

First, turn off the news. If you’re glued to the TV or Twitter, you are too entrenched in the event—that’s not good for you or your kids. 

If your kids are little—kindergarten or younger—don’t tell them anything if they haven’t heard about it. If they have, give them a one-line answer; less is more at that age. Always end with ‘You are safe.’ 

If your 11-year-old has an iPhone, you have to assume they know what’s happening, and you want to be the first one to talk to them about it. Sit at the kitchen table or on the couch and say, ‘This is a really sad day.’ Ask them what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling. Be honest about the incident but remind them that they’re physically safe. Be specific about all the safety measures that are in place at their school: the doors are locked at all times, there are cameras.

And show them how to grieve. Sit with them and cry. We teach empathy by living it. In those moments, we feel like we have to shelter and protect our kids, but we also have to teach them how to tolerate pain—that’s where resilience comes from. So many parents, when their children feel uncomfortable, say ‘Let’s give them a lollipop.’ We have to teach them that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it’s OK to be scared. 

Q. What are the consequences of not talking to kids?

Fear and anxiety develop when we don’t have the opportunity to talk about how something makes us feel or something we don’t understand occurs. 

Avoiding tough situations is not helpful to kids. It leaves them feeling they are alone in their thoughts, with a blank canvas on which they create scary stories and images.

Q. Why did you feel compelled to write this book?

I was in the middle of writing what I thought would be my first book, about how people have surrendered their power of parenting to the internet. Then Parkland happened. I thought about my clients: What do they know? What do I say? One of my clients described sitting in a closet during a lockdown drill. I was stunned. I said, ‘Can we bring your mom in?’ She didn’t know that was happening either, so the two of us were just crying. I went home that night, threw out my old outline and drafted a new one. I knew this was the book I needed to write. 

Q. Are you surprised by how many parents don’t know what lockdown drills entail?

Absolutely. I talked to hundreds of people for the book, and lots of parents either had no idea what was happening to their kids during these drills, or thought they had an idea until their children explained the specifics of the event. Many parents [also] did not realize the frequency of the drills and underestimated the degree of trauma they were causing their children.

Q. How should parents talk to their kids about the drills?

Acknowledge: ‘I know you had a drill today. How did that make your feel?’ And validate: ‘I understand why that would make you feel uncomfortable.’ Keep your anxiety in check and be curious: ‘When you were sitting in the dark, what were you thinking about?’

Q. How can schools partner with parents to ensure the health and wellbeing of students?

In my research, I only found a few school districts that email parents to let them know that a drill was held that day. Every school should be doing that. The email could include conversation starters and a list of resources, including community service organizations and parenting education forums about how to talk to your kids in this climate of fear.

I also encourage parents to go to school board meetings and ask questions. Who’s deciding the protocols for your school? What research are they based upon? Who decided that monthly lockdowns were the right thing to do? Part of my mission is empowering parents to get more involved and make sure that mental health is always part of the conversation. 

Tips for Tough talks

In her new book, Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, Kislin offers the following tips for communicating with toddlers to teens: 

  • Share stories about your day.
  • Tell stories about some of your struggles and successes from your childhood.
  • Try not to be overly dramatic or too long-winded; try to keep each story to under three minutes to hold your child’s attention.
  • Be patient.
  • Don’t be afraid of some silence. Even if your child isn’t speaking right after you tell a story or ask a question, it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or thinking about it.
  • Don’t make your child feel like he is the only important thing in your life. Generally speaking, if you just focus on what is happening in your child’s life, you may be putting too much pressure on them, creating self-absorbed, entitled kids. 
  • Equally, don’t make your child feel like you are overburdened 
by her needs.
  • Demonstrate that you get frightened by things, too. Talk about how you handle stressful situations, illustrating healthy self-care.