Blog: Nurturing Children Together

Talking With Children About Tornado Drills

Tornados and Tornado Drills can evoke a  range of reactions in young children, and it is very possible that your child does not know what a tornado is, which makes talking about how to practice being safe in one additionally challenging. To begin the conversation about tornado drills, you may want initially to talk to your child about the weather: how sometimes it is windy and rainy, sometimes sunny or snowy, hot or cold. Children are naturally interested in what makes it rain and what causes wind, and they understand very early the ever changing nature of the weather. 

Rather than focusing on facts about how scary and powerful tornadoes can be, it’s best to keep the description simple: “It gets windy when warm air and cold air mix around together. Sometimes this mixture of warm and cold air makes very strong winds that come close to the ground, and when this happens it's called a tornado. Tornadoes are shaped like funnels and spin, kind of like tops (perhaps demonstrate with a top or something else that spins), and they can be very strong.” You can differentiate regular wind from tornadoes by talking about how the sky looks different in a tornado, with dark clouds and a greenish sky.  It is best to avoid discussing the potential disaster that tornadoes can cause, destroying houses, uplifting cars and people and trees, etc., and it is important to say that tornadoes do not occur just because it is windy, and that they are rare. Avoid getting too technical with weather terms like up- and down-drafts, cyclones, supercells, etc. 

As with fire drills, tornado drills help us practice what to do and where to go if there is a tornado warning; it's good to have a plan in case the wind gets too strong.  At schools drills follow a typical pattern. Teachers generally will tell children about the tornado drill ahead of time, especially for the first one in a year, and will describe what will happen. On the day of the drill, there will be some kind of alert, which varies from school to school. It is typically different from the alert used for other drills, so everyone knows what to do. Each class will go into a protected, inner part of the building, sit against the walls with their teacher(s) and friends, and wait until they get the “all-clear” from someone outside.

The primary goal in talking with children about this or any other potential disaster is to be matter of fact, not give too much or unnecessary information, and convey confidence in the grownups who are taking care of them.

Talking With Children About Fire Drills

Anticipation of required fire drills and the actual experience of them can be confusing and frightening for preschoolers, and children are best prepared for the experience if they first hear about it from their parents.  What follows is a description of happens at many schools, followed by a few suggestions for how to talk with your children about the drill. 

On the day before the drill, the teachers will talk with the children in their classes about the drill and answer questions. On the day of the drill teachers will again tell children, at the morning meeting, that the school will be practicing how to leave the building if there is a fire so that we can be safe. Someone from the office will push the smoke alarm button in the main hall and the high pitched beep will alert teachers and children that the drill is happening.

Each class will line up at the room’s outside door, teachers will make sure all children are present, then each class will walk out, pass playgrounds, parking lots and other familiar landmarks to a particular spot.  Teachers will once again take attendance, and one of the school helpers will let everyone know when the children and teachers can return to the building.

Our experience at Allen Creek Preschool has been that children manage fire drills well, but that their thoughts, questions, and anxieties about the reason for the drill, whether or not there actually will be a fire, and whether they and their loved ones are safe, emerge afterwards, sometimes even several weeks later.  Because fires are unpredictable and scary to all of us, it can be hard to know how to reassure children that they will be safe.  As with all real life fears and uncertainties, it is important to talk with children in as matter-of-fact way as possible, at their developmental level, about what is happening and why.

A few days before the drill it is a good idea to tell your child/ren that there will be a fire drill at school the coming week and to describe the steps outlined above.  Ideally you can discuss this during the day at a calm moment when your child is rested and fed. 

When they ask why we need to do this, the message to convey is that the adults know how to keep them safe and that it’s always good to practice being safe.  We do a lot of things to stay safe: sit in car seats, use seat belts, wear shoes outside, stay away from the hot stove, wear helmets when we ride bikes, hold hands crossing the street, etc. We also know how to be safe around fires, such as around campfires, candles, or fireplaces.  If they express worry about something bad happening, again it’s best to reassure them that the adults in their lives do everything possible to help them be safe, and know what to do if things go wrong.  You will be there for them and their teachers will be there for them.

While children need to know that practicing is a good way to stay safe if there is a fire, details about fire disasters and what happens when a building burns down or when people get burned are not necessary or helpful, and can cause more anxiety.  Reading children’s books about fire fighters is fine; showing images of actual buildings on fire is not.  If you think it would be helpful for your child to act out a fire drill at home, you may consider doing some low key pretend drills, designating a door in your house to go out, making a beeping sound, going to a safe spot in the driveway or by the street.

Finally, children may show signs of distress or worry through behavior such as being irritable, reluctance to go to sleep, waking up at night, or not eating as usual. Because they are not fully able to understand the impact of scary events such as fires, children sometimes have private, bigger-than-reality notions of what might happen, and need us to reassure them that all is okay. Children do best when they know what to expect and when they know that the adults who take care of them are in control and know what to do.  

If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to talk to your children's teachers.