Resource:5 Steps to Emergency Preparedness for Students with Special Needs

There are so many intricate details when developing emergency plans. Deciding who will be in charge, where staging areas will be, and how to respond to different types of incidents’ are among the more common tasks of emergency planning for schools. A more challenging, yet equally important task of emergency planning is preparing for the varying responses from students with special needs. This is a tremendously important topic to cover during your organization’s emergency planning and preparedness will take extra coordination to ensure the safety of your students and your staff. 

The spectrum of students with special needs is broad. Disabilities can be cognitive, physical, behavioral, or any combination of these. Consider meeting with the special needs faculty when planning for emergencies. Planning for students with special needs is crucial as these students may need extra items, and staff may need specialized training for long term emergency situations.

Whether your school has three students with special needs or fifty, taking the time to plan for any type of emergency is critical. The following steps can be useful when considering special needs students in your emergency planning (Burke, 2010, p. 12).

  1. Know Who You’re Preparing For
    • Even if you’re not an administrator or faculty member that works with special needs students for a significant part of the day, it is imperative for all staff to know the special needs students that must be considered when preparing for large scale emergencies such as evacuations, lock downs, or mass casualty incidents. Do you have students with cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, hearing impairment, or blindness? If you know who to plan for, it will allow you to consider what extra resources you may need to keep all children and faculty safe.
    • Additionally, prepare for teachers as well. When hosting training exercises, have teachers practice activities and techniques designed to keep special needs students calm during a lockdown.
  2. Have a Buddy System
    • Knowing they are not alone is one of the most comforting things for any child during an emergency. A buddy system is important because it may take their minds off the fact that there are people running around while flashing lights and alarms are going off. A buddy system allows for distraction from the overall incident.
    • To ensure the success of the buddy system, be sure that the student is not paired with someone who they may not get along with. You will want your students to feel comfortable and familiar with their buddy. Make sure you have a back-up buddy as well, in case a buddy is absent.
    • The next step after pairing “buddies” is to practice. What good is an emergency plan without practice? When students are familiar with emergency procedures they are more likely to have a smoother transition into the next emergency phase. Have specific steps for any situation. For example, if a lock down is announced, students are to find their buddy, move to the safest part of the room, if necessary, and remain quiet. Use the buddy system repeatedly and change the scenario when practicing. Consider situations like an absent buddy, an abnormal fire drill route in case of a blocked exit, a lock down that is not in their normal location or classroom, etc.
  3. Include Parents
    • This step isn’t just important for your school district, but it is important for the parents and the community. Here are some questions you may want to ask your students’ parents to better accommodate the school and the special needs community.
      • Has your family experienced an emergency? If so, what were some challenges?
      • What are some triggers that may affect your child’s response during an emergency?
      • What can we do to make an emergency situation easier for your child?
    • In the end, it comforts the parents and allows the school district to become more prepared.
    • Aside from asking questions, keep parents informed about what training is taking place in the classroom. Most parents will appreciate the extra time spent on emergency planning and it may transition to the home.
  4. Know Your Meds
    • Though parents may not be legally obligated to tell school administrators about medications or medical issues, it is vitally important that the district tries to convey to parents with students on medication or with medical issues that, in times of emergencies, this information could be critical. Think about it, if a school is on lock down for a prolonged period of time, a student may only have their medication in the nurse’s office. If medication needs are communicated, the school can create a plan to get a student their medication during a lock down or other emergency.
    • Bearing all of this in mind, if educators are aware of what medications students need and when, they will ultimately be mitigating a second emergency from emerging during the one that has caused the initial lock down in the first place.
  5. Have a Go-Bag

    • When a classroom is on lock down or they need to be evacuated and go somewhere else, supplies placed in a bag such as a back pack or duffle bag can help aid in survivability.  Some of these supplies might include:

      • Whistles
      • Tissues
      • Bottles of water
      • Batteries
      • Phone chargers
      • Hand tools (screw drivers, pliers, etc.) You never know…
      • First aid kit
      • Small ice chest for medications
      • Protein bars
      • Attendance sheets with parental/guardian contact information
      • A flipchart emergency plan/procedures manual
      • Noise canceling headphones
      • Fidget toys to keep students’ minds off the incident
      • Weighted Blankets
    • A Go-Bag contains anything that a teacher or classroom aide may think is important for a specific class. The supplies do not have to be limited to those above. This list would be compiled based on your knowledge of your students and their triggers.

Though these are not the only steps schools can take to include a special needs population in their emergency plans, it is certainly a foundation from which to build. Make a committee, keep close tabs, and even get involved with the committee to be as familiar as possible for that situation or emergency that nobody thinks can happen. After you become proactive and create these plans, do not forget to implement them to your students and staff. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.


Burke, M.J. (2010, April). Emergency Plan for Students with Special Needs. Retrieved from