Preparing Your Child for Emergency Situations in School

Parenting can feel stressful enough without worrying about your child’s safety in school. But school emergencies can happen, and talking to kids about them can help keep them safe.

More than 90% of schools have written plans and procedures for responding to school-based emergencies, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But how do you talk to your child about emergencies at school without scaring them? 

“We need to make sure we’re always responding to their questions and concerns, reassuring them, and giving them the support they need,” says Michael Harries, MD, MA, MAT, Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at Lurie Children’s. “Creating that space for children to talk about emergencies before they happen is one way parents can be proactive. “

Knowing how your child’s school handles emergencies, including how they talk about emergency situations with kids, is another important part of preparation. Understanding the types of emergencies that could happen at school is also important.    

Understanding School Emergencies

Sudden, dangerous events require quick thinking and immediate action. Many schools rely on their emergency management and disaster preparedness plans to help keep kids safe when these events happen. 

But sometimes, everyday events like missing a school bus or a parent being late for pick-up can feel like an emergency to your child. That’s because kids don’t see things the same way adults do, Dr. Harries says.

Understanding how adults will handle situations helps ease kids’ worries. But every child is different. That’s why it’s important to consider your child’s age and personality when talking about school emergencies, says Dr. Harries, who is also a former high school teacher.

Types of Emergencies in Schools

School emergencies may affect an individual child, a group of children or the entire school community. Some events may cause an emergency school closing. Emergencies at your child’s school could include:

Bad Weather, Fire and Natural Disasters 

Storms like blizzards and tornadoes may occur while kids are in school. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires can also happen. When they do, these events can quickly become emergencies. 

Regular safety, evacuation and fire drills ensure all school staff know the safe areas in the school where children should go during these events. Drills also help make sure safety protocols aren’t new to children the first time an emergency occurs.

Intruders in Schools

A stranger who enters a school building without proper authorization can create an emergency. Most schools follow specific security protocols when an unauthorized person enters the school. 

School leaders use drills to help children practice what to do during an intruder emergency. Your child may experience:

  • Active shooter drills
  • Shelter-in-place drills

Drills are important so everyone knows their role and what they should do. Talking to kids about shootings or intruders may feel difficult, but it’s important to have conversations about these types of drills. “Having those conversations before something happens helps kids feel more comfortable talking about it,” Dr. Harries says.

Medical Emergencies at School

Managing medical conditions in school can become an emergency when your child has a chronic health condition. Asthma or severe food allergies may cause symptoms that become an emergency. A medical emergency may also occur if your child has an accident or injury on the school playground.

Some medical incidents, such as carbon monoxide poisoning or exposure to an environmental toxin, may affect the whole school community. While rare, these types of emergencies are particularly concerning because multiple children could be involved, Dr. Harries says. 

Is my child’s school prepared for an emergency?

Talk with your child’s teacher or school leadership about the school’s emergency preparedness plans. Ask about:

  • Expectations of parents during an emergency
  • How teachers and school leadership talk to kids about emergencies
  • Procedures for notifying families and sharing information during an emergency
  • Types of emergency drills done in your child’s school

You can use what you learn to talk with your child about what may happen during an emergency at school. Reassure them that teachers and school leaders have all the information they need to help them in an emergency.

Talking to Kids About School Emergencies

Giving your child information about school emergencies helps them know what to do and feel safe. But too much information or being overly focused on the topic can create new worries. You should:

  • Let them take the lead: Make sure they know it’s safe to talk about scary things. This can help kids recognize their own emotions and develop coping mechanisms.
  • Validate their feelings: Ask questions when your child shares a new concern. Help them understand why a concern is bothering them.

Still, it’s important to give your child space to talk about their feelings without forcing them to discuss something they’re not ready for. Check in with them to see how they’re doing and make sure they know it’s OK to talk about their emotions, Dr. Harries says. 

To help prepare your child for emergencies at school:

Discuss what they see and hear

A good time to talk is when your child sees or reads about an emergency in the news. “The more you can start the conversation in a natural way around something that happened at school or a question your child has, the more effective it will be,” Dr. Harries says. You know your child best, so take your cues from them. 

For example, if your child sees something on the news about a fire, ask if they’ve ever had a fire drill. Ask them what they’re supposed to do during the drill. Keep the conversation brief, simple and reassuring. You may also talk with them about other safety drills they do at school. 

Give them a sense of control

If your child takes any medications, make sure they know how to get them during school hours. Talk with teachers and school staff to be sure they understand your child’s needs and the importance of getting medication quickly.

Teach your child how to recognize symptoms that could be an emergency, including:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling faint
  • Swelling of the throat and tongue
  • Uncontrollable coughing

“It’s important to help your child understand their symptoms and when they’re in an emergency,” Dr. Harries says. “Make sure they know, ‘if this happens, I need to get help.’”

It’s not uncommon for kids to feel different because of a health condition. It may help to:

  • Give your child medication in front of friends who are visiting your home to normalize taking care of their health needs.
  • Talk to your child’s classmates about their condition so they know the signs of a medical emergency, if your child is comfortable with this conversation.

Tell them to follow safety rules

Make sure your child knows it’s important to follow all school safety rules. This includes listening to teachers and following directions during drills. Remind older kids not to let anyone into a school building without permission. They should also report any threats they hear or see to an adult.

Treat school safety as an ongoing conversation

The most effective way to prepare your child for school emergencies will be specific to your child, according to Dr. Harries. Don’t expect a one-time conversation. Conversations about safety in school will likely change as children get older. 

Signs Kids Are Worried About School Emergencies

Sometimes, thinking about an emergency at school or witnessing an emergency can cause anxiety in kids. If your child has experienced or witnessed an emergency or trauma, stay alert for changes in their behavior. You may want to talk to your child’s pediatrician if your child is:

  • Afraid of going to school or of being separated from you
  • Experiencing changes in sleep
  • Having trouble concentrating at school
  • Not interested in doing any of the activities or hobbies they like
  • Showing more anger, fear or frustration than usual
  • Withdrawing from friends 

Pay attention to questions your child asks because these can be clues to their worries. “If you’ve noticed that your child has asked the same question three times in the last few days, give them space to talk about it,” Dr. Harries says. 

“Every child is going to deal with it differently. It’s important they feel supported and know they can talk to you, so they don’t feel alone.,” he says. “If you notice changes that are troubling, talk to a health professional to determine how to best support your child.”

Learn more about pediatric emergency care at Lurie Children’s. 

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