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Keeping Students Engaged in Emergency Drills

Emergency drills have become a controversial or at least widely discussed topic in school safety for a myriad of reasons. If done purposelessly or without clear intention, it can be a waste of time that doesn’t improve your emergency preparedness but does take away from academic progress. Without clear communication to all relevant audiences regarding a lockdown or other drill, it can create an atmosphere of fear, confusion, or frustration. And as we’ve seen, without a clear purpose or leader who is deeply involved with the planning, lockdown drills can devolve into chaotic and pointless behaviors.


With that being said, perhaps the one factor that limits the effectiveness of emergency drills more than anything is when students don’t take the drill seriously. Chatter, jokes, and the ever-present allure of our cell phones can quickly take a drill from emergency preparedness booster to time-wasting loitering session. We’ve put together some simple guidelines to follow during your next drill that will help reduce the amount of students who aren’t taking it seriously.


Everyone Else Needs To Pay Attention, Too: In our experience observing and supporting tens of thousands of emergency drills at K-12 institutions of all kinds, the students aren’t the only ones with a tendency to lose focus. Teachers and staff are often seen demonstrating behaviors during a drill that would be out of place in a real emergency. When this is modeled, it underscores for students that drills are a time to turn off their brain and goof around. Of course, in the case of a real emergency, we want individuals on campus to be doing the opposite!


Challenge your staff (or yourself) to engage with any given drill on a more real level. That doesn’t mean you need to elevate your stress level too high, but try to think through the reality of the scenario. If it’s an earthquake, what objects in the classroom should you make note of? How would you exit the building if the initial path was blocked? Showing students that you’ll be present and engaged throughout the drill won’t solve the entire problem, but it’s a good place to start.


Focus on One Skill: Of course, the age of the students in your community will shape the ways in which we keep them engaged with the drill. Younger students may show more appropriate participation if asked to focus on lining up as quietly and quickly as possible. Generally, breaking the drill down into achievable bites can minimize or at least slow the process of losing the group’s attention.


For older students, it may be useful to return to a piece of advice we mentioned earlier. There’s not much teenagers like more than demonstrating how smart they are, so engage them in questions like alternative exit paths. While we’ll still follow the stated plan, having students think more deeply and broadly about emergency preparedness may have a positive long-term impact in the case of a real emergency. It also will limit the amount of time they have to lose interest and cause a distraction.


Remind Them Why We Do It: We certainly won’t pretend that following these basic steps will ensure that your entire community is focused during your next fire drill. However, it’s important to remember that no matter what emergency we’re drilling for, it is a scary proposition to entertain. Keeping the fire or earthquake or lockdown at arm’s length by goofing off or not paying attention can be a way to mask the understandable fears that these emergencies bring up. It’s always a good idea to remind your class in advance of a drill the reasons why you do it. Give them a chance to voice fears, ask questions, or be silly before the drill starts. Remember, we practice so that we are prepared to keep everyone safe when it counts!


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