One of the most essential needs for young children is a feeling of safety and security. It’s the second most fundamental tier on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, just above physical body needs and just below those feelings of belonging, love, and esteem.

So how do we teach children about safety and emergencies without shaking their sense of security?

Teach Your Child to Feel Confident Navigating the World—not Alone in it

Children entering preschool face another significant developmental challenge: what Erik Erikson calls “autonomy vs. shame and doubt.” This is the question of “Can I explore within safely set limits? Am I able to do things on my own?”

The key is to foster a sense of independence without creating a scary world. Instead, be ready to engage with children’s fears honestly but help them build an exciting sense of independence: One way to help children find agency and control over their realities is to focus on age-appropriate knowledge and empowerment. Children take pride in new knowledge. A week of circle times can be dedicated to introducing themselves with their name and full address; building the earthquake plan together can be a child-led class activity.

Build Safety Knowledge into Everyday Social Studies and Play

Young children are spending the vast bulk of their time, in one way or another, learning about being a person and learning about the world. Scholastic recommends building workers and the tools they use to communicate critical safety information into broader community helper units— “which worker uses this tool?”

They also recommend identifying other signs and symbols children will need to recognize throughout their life. Consider the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” sign, a railroad crossing, or Do Not Enter. Most of these are conveyed with pictures that children can recreate and use on their train tracks or tricycle paths.

Teach Safety From a Place of Security and Boundaries, not Authority

Autonomy is one of the most important skills your child develops during their preschool years. Much like the “terrible twos,” that moment when a child first discovers the word “no,” humans spend early childhood learning about limits—a process that involves pushing and testing them.

Sometimes, we grown-ups need to review why a rule exists. If you’re asked “why” and don’t know the honest answer, have something prepared for the deer-in-the-headlights “right now:” “This rule is to keep you safe,” and consider even “I’ll explain better when we have more time after lunch.” Phrasing rules as what to do, rather than what not to do, goes a long way.

Authority, for authority’s sake, teaches disempowerment, not respect. Honesty tells children that limits are built for them and with respect and helps re-affirm that sense of security that they need.