Students are anxious about COVID-19. Teachers must face this difficult conversation
“Has there ever been a worse virus, Miss Higgins?” Juan asked during a class conversation about the COVID-19 this week. I had opened up a discussion of the topic when I realized that students were understandably anxious about the coronavirus outbreak. As teachers, we must lean into conversations with students that other adults might find difficult. By following a few basic rules I can assuage fears, connect current events to fundamental learning concepts, and arm my 4th graders with strategies to protect themselves. Here’s how we can check in with ourselves when we’re also challenged by our own emotions:
1. Calm yourself. If you are anxious or have concerns, you are going to communicate this to students with your body language, word choice, and syntax. If you don’t feel you can be calm enough for a discussion, seek support from family and friends before talking to children.
2. You don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting of explaining big concepts yourself. You can use child-friendly resources that create levity by employing humor and cartoons. My students, for instance, enjoyed Brainpop videos. Use this conversation as an opportunity to model finding credible information and reliable sources. I let children know that even if some of the details are confusing to them or their parents, there are experts with more information. I also emphasized it is not a child’s responsibility to solve the problem.
3. Let children guide the discussion, and try to reframe their worries into curiosity. Listen to what they worry about, what their questions are, and try and answer them as simply as possible. This is an opportunity to develop lessons and project-based learning related to current events. I used my students’ interest in viruses to guide their research into the immune system and to compare and contrast viruses and bacteria. I then connected our recent lesson on interpreting timelines to create our own timeline of global pandemics. By setting aside time to study H1N1, SARS, Ebola, and HIV, I helped my students to contextualize these events and realize this is not the first time the world has faced this type of crisis.
We connected the epidemic to our recent unit on cause and effect, recognizing how individuals and governments can change the path of the virus. My students were fascinated to learn about exponential growth using real data from international sources.
4. Introduce thought patterns that can help students think through complex information. To help my students understand the media’s motivation in covering the news, I explained that their purpose is to inform and entertain. This means the news has a reason to be more exciting than just the facts. Next, we talked about some predictable patterns of pandemics. Experts believe that the number of cases will surge, not because the world is becoming more dangerous, but because more testing is occurring.
I also talked to my students about an attention bias. While they might not have paid any attention before when others coughed near them, it is totally normal that they would feel like it’s happening more and more.
Lastly, I have taken the time to explain that while the virus originated in China, the risk of having the disease has nothing to do with ethnicity or race. This is an opportunity to talk about racism and how they can combat it.
5. Keep it at their level and gamify. We all know about singing your ABCs or Happy Birthday, but I encouraged students to discover other common song choruses that were the right number of seconds for handwashing. Lizzo’s song “Truth Hurts” was a popular choice. While we wrote essays in the afternoon, students practiced keeping their hands away from their faces, like a modified game of tag. Whenever they touched their face, they were “out!” We modified our greetings from high fives or handshakes to elbow bumps. By keeping it age appropriate, children are able to focus on what they can do to keep themselves and others safe, but with less stress and anxiety.
I told Juan that we’ve had more lethal viruses in the past. We talked about many of the wonders of modern medicine, from penicillin to antiretrovirals. The class ended the discussion admiring the accomplishments of famous scientists; my students were able to picture themselves as potential virologists and epidemiologists, rather than victims of an epidemic.
When in doubt, always offer children hope and agency to help themselves and others. Explain the power of education to solve humanity’s problems. Yes, there are real consequences to COVID-19, but children suffering anxiety does not have to be one of them.