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How to Teach Your Child to Dial 911

Preparing your preschooler for an emergency

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Mother and daughter using mobile phone together
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While you hope your preschooler never has to deal with an emergency situation, it's important that they know what to do in case they ever find themselves facing one. Aside from teaching them important safety tips like what to do in case of a fire, or what to do if he or she gets separated from you, an important lesson that most kids over three can master is learning to dial 911. Teaching your child to dial 911 is relatively simple to do and something that will stay with them for a lifetime. Here's how:

  1. Define an emergency. Even some adults have trouble figuring out if calling 911 is appropriate, it's more than likely that a young child will too. Talk about what an emergency is -- a fire, a person who is passed out (won't wake up when you shake or yell at them), an unwanted stranger in the house -- without scaring your child. Explain that these are not things that happen every day and that they rarely happen at all, but that he needs to know what to do in case something like one of these scenarios happens.
  2. Explain to your child what 911 is. Talk about members of their community who they might be familiar with -- policeman, firemen, doctors, nurses and others -- and how their jobs are all about helping others. Talk about how when they call 911, the operator on the other end of the phone line is there to help and will send the right person to assist your child in whatever the need.
  3. Define what an emergency is not. Clearly, an emergency is not a lost pet or a cut that requires a band aid, but a child may have trouble differentiating. When in doubt, tell your child to ask a grown up, but if there isn't one around it's probably likely your child does have an emergency on his hands. Explain that if a person calls 911 and it is not a true emergency or a joke, they could get in trouble. You don't want to scare your child into not calling 911 if it's necessary, but you also don't want them to call for every small thing or because they think it might be fun.
  4. Go over the details of making the call. If possible, tell your child to call from a house phone, rather than a cell phone because that way the call can be traced with the address already known. (If your child already knows his address, that's great but many children at this age don't. Also, consider that not every emergency is going to happen at your home.) Tell your child to tell the truth and give the operator as much information as they can. Explain that they need to speak clearly and answer any questions the operator may ask. This may conflict with any "stranger danger" lessons you may have taught your child, but explain that in a case like this, it's OK.
  5. Do a practice run. Disconnect your phone and then do some role playing with your little one. Have them dial the numbers (always say "nine-one-one" as opposed to "nine-eleven" as not to confuse your child). Play out different scenarios and ask questions that they are likely to hear in the event of a true emergency:
    • What happened?
    • Where do you live?
    • Who needs help?
    • Why do they need help?
    • Is there a grown-up around to help you?
    • Is the grown-up breathing?
    You don't want to scare your child, but rather, make them aware of what could happen once they place the call. Explain that they need to listen to whatever the operator tells them to do and to know that while it is OK to be scared, it's important that they pay attention. Make sure to tell them that they shouldn't hang up the phone unless the operator tells them to.
  6. Do some prep work ahead of time. By every phone in our house I have a sign that simply says "9-1-1" in big, bold numbers. While your child may know these numbers well under normal circumstances, in the stress of an emergency, it could be easy for her to forget. Also keep a list handy of other important phone numbers -- your cell phone, a babysitter, doctors and other emergency contacts. Your child might not be able to call these numbers, but when the authorities arrive, they may. Also, keep a basic first aid kit in a central spot and make sure your child knows where it is.

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