Teaching Preschoolers to Handle Emergencies

The importance of teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to handle emergencies.

Do your little ones know what to do in the event of an emergency? If the answer is no, it’s time to equip them with some basic skills so they can manage worst-case scenarios independently and confidently. While it’s a topic many parents avoid because they don’t want to scare their toddlers and preschoolers, readying your family for a fire, serious injury, or any other emergency is one of the most important lessons you can teach them.

Most small children can be taught to handle the basics of emergency situations, but the first step is to define what an actual emergency is. Generally speaking, a problem requires the attention of a parent or trusted adult, while an actual emergency warrants the assistance of police, emergency medical, or firefighter services. Giving examples will make it easier to establish which situations fall under which category. A fire in the house or an unconscious family member qualifies as emergencies. A stolen bike, a scraped knee, or a lost pet do not.

Teach Kids to Call 911

The first step is to teach your kids how to dial 911. You can unplug a landline and teach even a 3-year-old to dial the numbers. And while you may think your kid is an expert at mobile devices, show them how to use a cellphone. “Many cellphones also have an emergency button that can be used to call for help,” explains Michelle Tween, director of early childhood education at The Chapel School in Bronxville. It’s also important to stress to kids that they should only dial 911 for emergencies. “Kids of all ages need to realize that police or fire trucks will arrive, even if the kids call just out of curiosity,” says Barbara Schori, director of the Ridge Street Country School in Rye Brook.

Also, prepare youngsters for any questions they will be asked by an emergency operator, such as “Where are you calling from?” or “What is your emergency?” It’s natural to be nervous when urgent situations arise, but being prepared for these questions will help. “A small child may forget his or her own address,” Tween says, “but calls can be traced, so if they do forget, they will still get the help they need.” Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder and director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, recommends telling kids ahead of time that the operator is there to help them and that they can trust the voice at the other end of the line. “This will help little kids to remain calm so that they will be able to stay on the line for as long as the operator needs to them to.”

Take the Fear Out of Situations Ahead of Time

Loud sirens, smoke alarms, and firefighters in uniform are all examples of things that can be very scary to young children. Tween recommends taking the time to familiarize toddlers and preschoolers with them ahead of time. “Take a family trip to your local fire department and show them the equipment the firefighters will be wearing or holding,” she says. “This will give them a frame of reference should a fire actually occur and the fire department shows up.” This would also be a good time to have a discussion about the Stop, Drop, and Roll and Stay Low and Roll techniques.

Tween also recommends intentionally setting off fire alarms and the carbon monoxide detectors in your house during a family meeting so that your kids can hear what they sound like in a controlled environment. (If your alarms connect directly with the local fire department, don’t forget to disable them beforehand, or else you will have real-life firefighters at your door in minutes.) “These sounds can be very loud and scary so you want your kids to be familiar with what they sound like ahead of time in order to reduce panic or anxiety,” she says.

You can further involve toddlers and preschoolers by asking them to help you change batteries in fire detection devices and assemble emergency supply kits. Create and practice your escape plan with your family from every room in the house. Practice staying low to the floor and checking for hot doors using the back of your hand.  It’s just like a routine school fire drill—but in your home. “Involving your kids will empower them,” Tween says.

Provide Reassurance

It’s easy to become so wrapped up in teaching small children the basics of emergency preparedness you forget how easily overwhelmed they can become. While you’re teaching them how to handle an emergency, make sure you also explain they are safe and protected. Let them know these things probably won’t happen, but it’s your job to make sure they know what to do in a worst-case scenario.

Barbara Klein, director of the Huguenot Nursery School in Pelham, runs emergency drills during the school year, but it is done without frightening her students. “Our goal is to be prepared for any event, but to keep it low key for the children,” she says. “I feel strongly that at this age the children should not have to worry about ‘what might happen’ and to feel safe knowing the teachers will always look out for them.”

Teach Basic First Aid Skills

Emergencies happen, but it isn’t always the child who needs emergency care. If a parent or caregiver is injured, it may be the child who must administer basic care until emergency medical services arrives. For this reason, children should be taught basic first aid. If a child finds herself with an incapacitated caregiver, her own survival may depend on knowing what steps to take. Her sharp mind is limited only by her physical strength and emotional state.

Helping feels good and soothing someone feels important and grown-up. Learning a few first-aid principles does more than prepare kids for the worst: It also helps them develop their compassion, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.

Here’s how to do it in an age-appropriate way:

  • Introduce basic first aid (treating scrapes and bruises) by using a doll.
  • Videotape your child treating a friend’s mock injury and then review the tape with all of the children, asking what could have been done better or more safely.
  • Engage with their natural love of playing “doctor” by pretending to be their imaginary patient and telling them your symptoms.
  • Ham it up! Use ketchup for blood, white rags for bandages, socks stuffed inside clothing to indicate swelling. 
  • Go through the first aid kit together, and have some extra bits of gauze, tape, and cotton balls on hand so your child can practice with real tools—smaller kids get a special thrill out of these materials.
  • Focus on emergencies your family is most likely to encounter such as someone who has epilepsy. Make sure your child is aware of the conditions and knows how to name them to emergency personnel.
  • Finally, remember part of our job as parents is to assure kids they never need to be a hero or overstep their abilities. Make sure children know their first and most important job is to stay safe themselves.

More Non-Threatening Ideas to Get Your Kids Ready for Emergencies

  • Brainstorm words that relate to emergency preparedness and create flashcards to review and discuss with your child.
  • Encourage children to prepare a skit or role-play how your family should respond to an emergency such as a fire in the house.
  • Preschoolers may find it easier to use songs to learn your phone number. Tunes such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” lend themselves to this exercise.
  • Break out the glitter glue, scissors, and construction paper to have your child write out important phone numbers in a decorative fashion.


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