Talking to Students About Coronavirus

Talking to students about coronavirus

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The news about COVID-19 or the coronavirus isn’t getting any better. More cases are being reported across the country, many school districts are closing, and more may soon follow suit to help battle the outbreak. Children of all ages will, as always, be looking look to their parents and teachers for guidance on how to react to these stressful developments.

Dr. Jamie Howard is a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service. NEA Today recently reached to Howard for some tips and suggestions on how educators should be addressing the coronavirus with their students.

Students have been coming to school already inundated with information about the virus. What is the teacher’s primary role in helping them sort through this information? 

Jamie Howard: Teachers’ tone is very important. The more they appear calm and rational, the more comfortable students will feel. We want children to learn about this information from trusted adults, not from the news, other kids, etc., and teachers are trusted adults. You should also steer clear of opinions and focus only on the facts, such as information from the CDC. It’s very important that teachers process their own fears about this pandemic with each other, but not with their students.

Obviously everyone is anxious, including educators. Can you talk a bit about the importance of managing your own stress?

JH: Children look to important adults in their life for cues about how to interpret situations. If the adults are anxious, the children will follow suit. Young children are especially vulnerable to this ‘social referencing’ phenomenon. Another problem is that it is very difficult to maintain a rational mindset when we’re anxious. We need to be rational in order to make sense of the various precautions being implemented right now. If teachers are able to be rational and factual, then their students will feel empowered and respected.

How important is teacher-parent communication in making sure kids get all the facts?

JH: Schools should send out information to parents about how they’re handling the situation, such as increased hand washing, cleaning policies, and school closures. It’s important for children to perceive important adults in their lives as unified, presenting a cohesive message.

What are some of the differences between younger and older students in how they process something like this?

JH: Sometimes younger children fare better in the situations because they are more egocentric. If they are healthy, and their immediate family is healthy, then they feel pretty calm and happy. Still, they will benefit from an open line of communication and routines in place if they are out of school.

Older children on the other hand are able to process this pandemic more abstractly, with attention to the global impact. So there is actually more to sort out with older children in this case. Given that older children may be worried about more issues related to coronavirus, it’s very important to keep an open line of communication with them, even if they seem like they have a good understanding of what’s going on.

Many students already have anxiety. Do they need any special attention at this time? Also, how alert should educators be of potential bullying as a result of fears surrounding coronavirus?

Children with pre-existing anxiety will have more difficulty coping with coronavirus. It’s especially important to monitor how these children are doing and provide them with accurate information, but with the assurances they need to reduce their anxiety. For example, make sure they understand that most people recover just fine from this illness.

Teachers should monitor potential bullying of students whose ethnic background has been associated with this illness. It’s important to provide clarifying information here. Also, just because a student’s parents were born in China does not mean they are any more likely to be sick or infectious. It’s important to maintain a spirit of helping our community during this time, which is the reason for the widespread social distancing measures taking place. Social distancing is not for one’s personal benefit, but more so that our society can function properly.

It’s likely we’ll be seeing widespread school closings soon. A lot of schools – at least those that have the infrastructure and the students who have reliable access to computers and the internet at home – will shift to some form of online learning. What advice do you have for teachers who are going to transition to this environment as they to continue to help students adjust?

Teachers should try to be flexible and understanding with online instruction, e.g., give kids some time to figure out how to login on time, find a quiet place to ‘attend’ remote lessons, etc. They might need to give students explicit instructions for setting up a conducive workspace and asking parents to monitor the setup. Children are accustomed to connecting with one another via video calls and social media, so they may not have as much difficulty experiencing a caring connection with their teachers via remote learning; teachers might have more difficulty with this, but time and increased familiarity will help.

Schools and Coronavirus:
What You Should Know

Find general guidance on COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other health organizations, in addition to resources for navigating schools closures and online learning. NEA is committed to ensuring the health and safety of its members and the students they serve and will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as they become available.