On what I thought was a normal day, the loud speaker in my class alerted us to start our lockdown procedure. It was not a drill. Somebody was outside our building in the empty lot next door with a gun shooting. My classroom overlooked the parking lot and had an outside door leading right to the lot. I gathered my students and my thoughts. We turned out the lights and hid. My students became anxious. After all, their normal routines were disrupted and while me and my amazing para both stayed very calm, I’m sure they could picked up some tension. Thankfully the gunman left the school alone, but we didn’t know that when we were going through it. What I did know was that I would do everything in my power to keep my kids safe. Since then I’ve wanted to help other teachers with school emergency drill procedures.



Emergency Drills in Special Education

Teaching kids young students or those with special needs how to act during a real emergency situation could help save their lives. However, the loud bells and ringing, the movement, and the change in routine seem tailor made to give our kids a difficult time. With practice, they can learn to be successful at drills so they will be better equipped in a real emergency.


As much as possible, use visuals to help your students understand what they need to do in an emergency. You can use PEC cards or even photos from inside and outside your school to show students where they will go and how they will get there.

Step by Step

Special needs students will need short, step by step instructions on what to do to be prepared for the drill. You can use simple “I Can” statements to break down the drill into the basics like “Stop,” and, “Line up.” Don’t make the instructions too complicated.


Have your students practice the drill a little bit each day before you expect to have the school wide drill. If you are practicing for a fire drill, take the students out through the exits to where they will stand and wait. If you’re practicing a tornado drill, practice doing the duck and cover movement. You could even use duck and cover as a movement/brain break during the rest of the school year so they stay familiar with the posture. While you practice, let students know they will be hearing noise during a real drill or emergency. If possible, play the sound for them on your phone. Recreate the same conditions as much as possible.


Waiting is often particularly difficult for young kids or those in special education settings, especially for children needing the support and structure of self contained classrooms. Build waiting into your directions so students will be aware that a wait is part of the procedure. It will help many of them keep calm if they know that it is part of the process. For lockdown drills, I recommend having¬† some silent and still activities students can do from their hiding place to stay happy and occupied while doing the drill. Keep the activities stored in your safe place so you can access them in a real emergency. You won’t be able to grab them during the real deal.¬†

Back to Work

Transitions are an important topic in special education, and they should not be left out of your plan for emergency drills. When I write my emergency drills I include “Back to Work” as the last step in the drill. This up front knowledge of knowing that they will be getting back to work right after the drill can help their minds prepare for the transition back to work.


Your classroom is unique and each of your kids will have their own particular situation. Even with direct instruction and practice, some of your students may still need a lot of support to successfully get through the emergency drill. Give thought to what kind of support each student is likely to need. Think about how many hands you’re going to need for the drill. Consider kids who may need to be pushed in a wheelchair to evacuate or those who will need to hold someones hand to guide them.

Planning Ahead

Make a plan for each student. If your classroom is like mine were, you may have kids going in and out to general ed classrooms along with paras during the day. Make sure you have an emergency plan in place for all your students at all times of day. If your fire drill evacuation plan only works when you have both your paras in the room for the first 30 minutes of the day when the principal always holds your fire drills, it’s not a real emergency plan. Emergencies won’t happen around the special education schedule very often.


Emergency drills don’t often show up in any curriculum, which is why we created this unit to teach and practice emergency drills. You can purchase it here. Or if you want a sneak peak, you can check out the included file folder practice games in this FREEBIE.


Some schools are moving to a more proactive form of lockdown drills. One of these is called ALICE training. According to the Alice Training website, if your school is only doing lockdown for active shooter drills, your policy is not compliant with the US Department of Education. In 2013, the US Department of Education changed the federal guidelines on how to respond.

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