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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, January 11, 2013

Preschoolers and "Shooter Drills"

An e-mail last night from a friend who is on the staff of a day-care center brought up a question that I have not seen addressed until now: should we try to train preschool children to follow instructions to escape from a shooter in the building? Elementary and high school kids are drilled on what to do, and the cooperation of some of the children at Sandy Hook seems to have saved their lives. Why not do the same for preschoolers? My friend’s center is proposing to do this, but as she said, the idea does not seem to “sit right”. And I had to agree with her about that.

Like all teachers and parents nowadays, day care providers and preschool teachers have been forced to think about the impact of events like the Newtown killings on the children they work with. The National Association for the Education of Young Children—the primary standard- setting and accrediting body for early childhood programs—has provided a list of suggestions for helping young children feel more comfortable as they hear about kids being hurt or killed (see As far as I know, however, neither NAEYC nor any other organization has proposed that young children participate in “shooter drills” that involve running away and hiding, on cue.

Why is my friend’s center considering such drills? It’s not a freestanding center, but operates under the administration of a larger institution. The larger institution is responding to Newtown and other events by developing plans for dealing with a “shooter”, and in the course of this a member of the security staff--  father of a child at the day care center—has been assigned to develop a plan and educate the staff and children. But I am afraid that like many people who know little about early development, he has with the best of intentions simply seized a method used with older children and “pulled it down” to be applied to preschoolers. By doing so, he may be proposing a step that will not only be ineffective in an emergency, but that may in itself be harmful and disturbing to young children.

Let’s consider first how likely it is that a school shooting will occur at all. Just over 80 school or mass shootings between 1996 and 2012 are listed at and this is the worldwide list. It  includes shootings in malls, religious buildings, and theaters as well as in schools. In other words, although constant repetition on the news gives us the impression that school shootings occur over and over, they are in fact quite unusual events, and a child is a good deal more likely to die in a car accident --  or by being shot at home-- than in a school shooting.

This doesn’t mean that we should not plan what to do in all emergencies, but we need to balance the good we can achieve by any move against the ill we may unintentionally cause by the same move. Just as it’s wrong to think that “any psychotherapy is better than no psychotherapy”, it’s a mistake to forget that our attempts to protect children can  have unwanted side effects, especially if they are not developmentally appropriate.

It seems hard for many people (including some parents) to remember this, but preschool children are as different from school-age kids as they are from infants. Preschoolers can seem very grown-up and often “talk a good game”, using big vocabularies and doing a good imitation of adult attitudes. But that’s when everything is going well. Let a 3-to-5-year-old feel sick, get hurt, or feel threatened, and it all comes apart. Young children’s natural response to distress is to hurry to a familiar adult and cling there. If there’s no adult, other children are the goal. Overcoming that tendency with drills is not very likely to be achieved. The more serious and intense the adults are, the more the children want to stay with them, and the more the children are likely to cry and become confused if pressed.  Loud noises and screaming would increase their tendency to stay close to their teacher rather than run away.

This suggests that “shooters drills” with preschoolers are not likely to be effective in the very unlikely event of a shooter appearing. And what would their probable side effects be? The essential characteristic of a good day-care center or preschool is that the children feel it to be a safe place. Feeling safe helps them overcome the well-known anxiety that accompanies separation from parents even at this “advanced” age. Unless young children feel secure in the presence of a familiar adult, their ability to explore and learn is diminished. What happens then when we face them—either with or without explanation--  with the idea that they must run away and hide rather than staying where they feel safe? If we explain the problem and introduce them to the idea that someone might come and shoot them right here in their own classroom, we can certainly expect repercussions, not only at school but in the form of fearfulness and sleep disturbances at home. If we don’t explain, but just run them repeatedly through a drill that will create concern and anxiety in the adults, the outcome can be similar--  especially if the children are not developmentally ready to do what the adults are urging them to do.

Expecting preschoolers to act to save themselves in a shooting attack is somewhat like expecting them to recognize what a child molester is doing and tell him “no”. Trying to teach young children these things may make adults feel better, but that’s all the good it’s likely to achieve--  and it may do harm.

I have an idea, though. If we want to protect young children from being shot—at school, in their homes, or on the street—why don’t we enact some serious gun control laws? It’s just a thought, but ya know, it’s so crazy it just might work.

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