How to Consider Your Students Developmental Levels for Age-Appropriate, Effective Drills


The National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools agree that school emergency preparedness drills and exercises are important to overall school safety, but these exercises and drills can be traumatizing if they are not age-appropriate and based on best practices.

In their latest publication, Best Practice Considerations for Armed Assailant Drills in Schools, these experts urge schools to build their drill and exercise program based on their students developmental levels. Below we summarize the guidance from their publication that can help you determine what drills are appropriate for each grade level.

Pre-K through Early Elementary Students

Although these students typically have a basic understanding of danger, they ultimately need an adult to tell them what is dangerous or safe. They also have a challenging time with reality versus make-believe situations, and they greatly depend on adult guidance and direction during emergencies. Early elementary students can typically help with certain safety tasks such as turning off lights or closing blinds during drills and exercises.

Appropriate safety explanations and activities for this level student includes:

  • Conversations about how adults ensure schools are safe
  • Detailing examples of dangerous situations adults can address (e.g. if a visitor without a badge is walking through the hallways, the adult will intervene to ensure the visitor is safe)
  • Using the word safety in conversations and during drills and exercises
  • Practicing evacuation and hold drills so students become familiar with directions from their teachers


Upper Elementary Students

These students can determine what is dangerous but may still have difficulty knowing the difference between probable dangers and real dangers. At this level, students understand why schools conduct drills, as well as all the safety directions and instructions they receive from adults during the drills. They will still need adult direction during emergencies and can assist with bigger tasks, such as moving furniture and barricading doors, to assist teachers and staff.

In addition to those listed above, appropriate safety explanations and activities for this level student includes:

  • Teaching the difference between possible dangers and common dangers
  • Practicing evacuation, hold, lockdown, and barricade drills


Intermediate, Junior High, and Middle School Students

At this level, the students have a proficient awareness of danger and know the difference between probable dangers and real dangers. They are also fully capable of understanding why drills are important to their personal safety. Although adult direction is beneficial, this level of student can automatically perform practiced actions those that they learn during drills independently without much direction. These students can also assist with most safety tasks during an emergency, and some students may have the ability to stop an intruder.

In addition to those listed above, appropriate safety explanations and activities for this level student includes:

  • Having detailed discussions about why schools need safety procedures
  • Asking students to think of common dangers that safety procedures can address
  • Conducting evacuation and lockdown drills, and if the student wants to participate, options-based drills (e.g. they have the option to lockdown, barricade, evacuate, or encounter the intruder)


High School and Adult Students

These students can typically determine what is safe or dangerous. Volunteers who are on campus during an emergency typically fall into this category as well. Individuals at this level understand what response is needed for each situation; for example, they can tell you what type of crisis results in an evacuation versus a lockdown. In emergencies and drills, these individuals can act independently with little to no adult direction. They are also able to identify probable school safety dangers and assist in developing protocols and policies to address these dangers. This level can help with all safety tasks, and just like the level above, may demonstrate the ability to stop an intruder.

In addition to those listed above, appropriate safety explanations and activities for this level student includes:

  • Having conversations focused on the specific types of school safety procedures each school needs


Students with Disabilities

The publication recommends schools work with a disability specialist or consultant when designing drills for students with disabilities. School psychologists can also provide valuable input and expertise, and there are many Federal policies that require schools to consider everyone’s needs in all types of crisis planning. Schools must consider:

  • Physical disabilities that can impede mobility (e.g., handicap students) and/or impede access to instructions (e.g., blind or deaf students)
  • Sensory disabilities, such as autism, that can heighten a students reaction and/or impede their response to instructions
  • Cognitive disabilities that can impede a students understanding of the situation and/or the instructions provided


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