Most of the teachers I know, myself included, are still reeling from the massive and sudden shift to online teaching brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am more fortunate than many: I completed a doctorate online and have taught online courses for 10 years. But I’ve already had more than a few hard conversations about the novel coronavirus and how it is impacting my students’ lives. How can we reassure our students during this crisis? And what signs should we look for to make sure that they are safe?
A March 25 survey by the American Psychiatric Association reported that while 48% of Americans are anxious about contracting COVID-19, nearly 62% are concerned about loved ones becoming sick or dying from the disease. Among adults from all walks of life, COVID-19 is causing high levels of anxiety and uncertainty. Our children and students share in this anxiety.
Tips for Discussing Coronavirus With Your Students
It’s important to understand that what we and our students are experiencing is grief. Naming our negative emotions can help us to find the right resources. As I searched for resources to help my own students, I focused on grief counseling. The National Association of School Psychologists developed guidelines for conversations with students about the death of a peer or loved one, and much of the advice works well in our current unprecedented environment dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some tips to consider when discussing the novel coronavirus with your students:
- Listen first, and then acknowledge and validate the student’s feelings.
- Remember that a wide range of feelings can be normal in response to grief. Don’t assume that the student feels the same way you feel.
- If students ask specific questions, be honest about what you know — and what you don’t know. Use age-appropriate language and concepts, and make sure that you have a reliable source for information. This fact sheet about COVID-19 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is a good resource to keep on hand.
- You can reassure students that their individual risk of serious illness is likely very low and that simple things like hand-washing, not touching your face, and covering coughs (we call this the vampire cough move — it looks kind of like a dab) are all ways to prevent disease spread. My own children and I discussed which songs we could sing for 20 seconds to ensure that our hands were properly washed — experts recommend two rounds of “Happy Birthday” or the “ABC Song.”
- It’s also important to pay attention to clues that something more is wrong. Common mental health concerns during infectious disease outbreaks include fear and worry about health, change in eating and sleeping patterns, and difficulty concentrating or completing tasks. This CDC resource outlines ways to cope with COVID-19 and promote mental health.
What if a Student Needs Intervention?
When students reach out to adult authority figures, what they want most is to know that they are safe. These are scary times for students and their parents. Some students may have relied on school as a safe space to escape problems at home.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to ask basic questions about food security and safety, especially if what your student tells you raises concerns. Find out what your district plans to do for students who previously received free or reduced-cost meals. Does your school district have a meal pick-up option?
Also, be aware of any signs of abuse. You can prepare ahead of time and know which agencies in your county can help with child protection. Your individual school district has probably already created a list of COVID-19 resources for students and their families, but if not, you should ask them to do so.
Positive Intervention Suggestions for Students During Times of Crisis
Jessica Chilcott, a License Clinical Social Worker who works with at-risk adolescents, had these recommendations when I asked her how to have these hard conversations: “Normalize that this is incredibly stressful for everyone,” she said. “Remind your students to take care of themselves; that includes movement as practical, creating space not to obsess about the current situation, and trying to maintain some semblance of a routine.”
Some specific positive interventions that you can discuss with students include the following:
- Getting some exercise. Even if it’s just a few jumping jacks in the living room, exercise can help to manage anxiety.
- Keeping a journal. Aside from the fact that we are living through history, students who are old enough to keep a journal may find this tool helpful in naming and coping with their fears.
- Talking about their fears with people they trust. Some students may need professional help during this time. I recommend locating a list of telehealth mental health providers who work with children and adolescents that you can provide to parents or older teens.
- Establishing new routines. Children’s regular routines have been suddenly disrupted. Encouraging them to establish a new routine, including study time, regular exercise, and sleep, will help them to feel safe.
- Asking for help when they need it. This is a new experience for all of us, and it’s OK to ask for help.
- Thinking about hope. In times of crisis and change, it can be hard to look for the positives, but asking your student what their hopes are can be a powerful way to shift the conversation.
It’s important to know that grief can impact a student’s behavior and performance in a variety of ways. With my own students, I am creating individual learning plans when necessary. I’m assuming that everyone is trying their best under the circumstances. I’ve been surprised by the toll that this experience has taken on my own mental health — and I have a job, a home, and a savings account. I can only imagine how difficult this sudden economic disruption must be for some of my students and their families.
One thing I do know: Our students trust us. We can help them get through this crisis.
To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Text “START” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
Older students might resonate with this short film, Never Lost, in which British poet Kate Tempest addresses our fears but also offers hope. (The film introduces Facebook’s COVID-19 community help platform.)