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How to talk to your kids about active-shooter drills at school

Here's a guide for children of every age.
/ Source: TODAY

As active shooter drills become more commonplace in elementary, middle and high schools — and even daycares — parents worry about whether they instill anxiety and fear in kids.

The concern is understandable: It's not a topic that most adults, let alone kids, want to face.

But experts say the drills themselves aren't inherently scary.

“These drills are not detrimental to children's mental health, provided that they're done in a reasonable way," Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist and director of the Trauma and Resilience Program at Child Mind Institute in New York City, told TODAY Parents. “If you do notice anxiety in your child, the most important thing to do is determine what is causing it and not to assume it’s because there was a drill.”

School shootings are still low-probability events, Howard said, and your child should know that. “If the child has persistent anxiety, they should see a mental health provider to learn coping strategies, but it's likely this child is suffering from other anxieties as well.”

Here are some ways to handle the drills your kids may face.

Lockdown drills for Kindergartners through third graders:

Howard recommends explaining a lockdown drill as a “hiding game or quiet time drill” to younger children. “Young children don't need details about the specifics of the threat. The only important concept is that they follow the teacher’s instructions in any type of drill.”

For fourth graders and older:

Students know that a lockdown drill means they should hide and be quiet because they are practicing in the event of some kind of threat. But don't discuss specifics of school shootings, Howard said, because this plants a seed of fear and curiosity.

Instead, ask kids what happens during a drill to make sure they know what to do, where to go, the importance of remaining quiet and above all, following their teachers' instructions.

For tweens:

“It is not unusual for a tween to habituate to the idea of a school shooting, meaning they’ve gotten used to it. This is a normal response when you're exposed to a feared situation repeatedly and nothing bad happens,” Howard said. “A child comes to learn that it's unlikely something bad will happen.”

For kids of every age, make sure they know that that things may change.

“I think it’s important to have a plan," said Sarah Caron, whose son survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, "even if it is ultimately deviated from.”

This could mean running away from the threat, even though that was never part of the original plan, or taking cover in a bathroom stall. Parents should ask their kids if they have been instructed what to do during a drill if they’re on their own or away from their class during a drill. Going along with a spontaneous new plan at the direction of a teacher or other adult can be important, too.

Caron, whose son was in second grade when he heard “pop-pop-pop” during the Sandy Hook shooting says, it’s OK for parents to be upfront with children at home.

“As a mom, and especially as a mom of a school shooting survivor, I know that I cannot stop unforeseen bad things from happening — we lived through it. But I can be open and honest with my children about the state of our world and the importance of being prepared.”

Students study for vocabulary tests and practice for soccer games. A lockdown drill should provide the same confidence during the school day. "Children need to know their safety is being taken very seriously," Howard said.