Safety drills have long been a part of education here in the US – from the fire drills we’re all familiar with to those particular to a region, such as earthquake drills in California or tornado drills in Nebraska.
And these days – for better and worse – we have active shooter lockdown drills, as well.
Certainly, we want to do all we can to keep children – and teachers and administrators and staff – safe from any kind of harm. Rehearsing procedures during moments of calm means a better chance of survival when faced with an actual threat.
Of course, our bodies already have a built in protective mechanism to boost our chances of survival: the stress response. Muscles tense up, ready to spring into action. Heart rate goes up and breathing quickens to deliver more oxygen. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol surge.
We stand ready to fight or flee.
The amygdala is where it starts. This part of the brain is involved in emotional processing, and when it perceives danger, it signals another part of the brain, the hypothalamus, which communicates and coordinates the stress response.
Unfortunately, the amygdala can’t discern whether a threat is real or not. It only picks up that danger is near.
And this is why safety drills can spur dysregulation in students and teachers alike, perhaps especially those with a history of trauma.
A Fire Drill & a Breathing Sphere
School social worker Jennifer Gervais noticed this one day last year during a fire drill at her elementary school in suburban St. Paul.
As the students headed out of their classrooms to their designated assembly areas on either side of the school, Jennifer noticed the physical response of many of the K-1 students around her. Their breathing was fast and irregular. Their bodies were squirming from the muscle tension triggered by the alarms sounding.
She also remembered that she had a breathing sphere with her. So she took it out and began expanding and contracting it as she took a series of slow, full, even breaths. Soon, she noticed some of the students following along – even the older ones.
After completing a series of calming breaths together, Jennifer then led them through a simple sequence of poses to let go of the tension and energy built up by the stressor.
Sharing a Common Language
On one level, what Jennifer was doing was reminding the students of things they had already been taught. Valley Crossing Elementary is a Responsive Classroom community, with a Regulation Curriculum that’s shared across all grades by students, teachers, and staff alike. Bringing together elements from Yoga Calm, Mindful Schools, Zones of Regulation, and other aligned programs, the curriculum aims to help students with self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-esteem.
“There’s a common language,” explains Jennifer. “When everyone is using the same language – teachers, janitors, food service, everyone – the students become more comfortable trying new stuff.”
So teachers are also coached to do regulation activities during lockdown drills, as well – using the breathing ball during the drill, and then moving outside afterwards to follow up with some releasing movements.
A Student Leads
Now that regulation has become an integral part of drills, Jennifer will sometimes ask one of the students to lead the breathing. She tells the story of one five-year old with PTSD – he had witnessed his father’s suicide – who she encouraged to be in charge of the breathing sphere one day.
As other students began to follow, he turned to Jennifer and said with some astonishment, “Dr. Gervais! They’re all doing it with us!”
He couldn’t have looked prouder or more poised as he helped himself and his classmates slow their speeding hearts and return to calm.
For more on using regulation activities during drills, including sample sequences, head over to the 1000 Petals blog, where you’ll find two related blogs on Active Shooter Drills for Staff and Tips for Students During Lockdown Drills.