How and When to Teach Your Child to Dial 911

Your child should know how, when, and why to call 911 from about age 4. Experts explain how to start the conversation.

Adult and Child Hold Cell Phone iPhone Black Keyboard In Background
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Just like you want your child to know where they live and what their parents' names are, it's vital for them to know how to dial 911 in case of an emergency. Of course, we hope this type of situation won't happen—and most likely it won't. However, if there is an emergency and you or another adult is not able to call for help, you'll want your child to know what to do. Teaching this vital skill can save a life.

Showing them how to dial 911 may seem fairly straightforward. But it's not as simple as just teaching them how to push the buttons on the phone. They also need to know why and when to make this type of call—and understand why not to do it unless it's really needed. Learn more about how to teach your child to dial 911.

When and Why to Teach Kids to Dial 911

Experts say most kids can learn this vital skill by around age 4. Some kids may be ready a few months sooner, particularly those who have experience playing on phones. Others might not develop the discipline and understanding needed until a bit later. But learning to dial 911 is something you can typically begin practicing as your child's fourth birthday approaches.

You might wonder if kids even need to practice this skill. Since so many young kids use cell phones and other electronic devices with ease, it's natural to assume that young kids that know 911 is the emergency help number will already know how to make this call. However, a recent study found that most 4 to 9-year-olds were unable to recognize an emergency situation, dial 911, and/or answer the dispatcher's questions.

So, it's crucial not to assume that your child will know what to do—or have the confidence to follow through while under stress. And even if your child has been taught what to do, experts say that practicing these emergency skills will enable them to act should a crisis occur.

Define an Emergency

Your child probably knows about firefighters, police officers, and maybe even EMTs. But there's one community helper they're likely not yet familiar with: the 911 dispatcher. Kids as young as 3 have called 911, saving a parent or another caregiver. Tell your child that 911 is a special phone number to call when there's an emergency. Give examples of when they'd need to call 911, such as if there's a fire or if a family member is sick and needs help right away.

Explain How to Use the Phone

Keep a phone in a consistent place in your home so your preschooler will know exactly where to find it. If your cell phone needs to be unlocked, make sure your code is simple. Figure out the easiest way to call 911 on your phone (many brands have an emergency button) and teach your child how to do it. Hang a visual step-by-step guide at eye level near the phone to remind your child what to do.

Help Them Recall Important Info

Ideally, your child should know their home phone number and address and each family member's first and last names. Singing the information will help it stick in their head. Families can create an emergency profile at, which allows emergency dispatchers in more than 500 locations to see your exact address, the layout of your home, and existing medical conditions, if you choose to include that information.

Role-Play an Emergency

You can pretend to need help and ask your child to call 911 using a toy phone. The Center for Childhood Safety offers a free app, called Kids' Practice 911 Dialer, which allows kids to practice making "the call" and explaining what the emergency is without accessing a live dispatcher.

Go over what to say on the call. Practicing and pretending will better prepare your child to handle a real emergency. Books like Impatient Pamela Calls 9-1-1, by Mary Koski, can also familiarize your child with the process.

Sources: Kelley Abrams, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist for Cognoa, in Palo Alto, California; Lorraine Peters, operations director of Our Kids Place, in Hewlett, New York.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2020 issue as "Teach Your Child to Call 911." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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