Are children really capable of social distancing?

With schools set to open more widely, clinical psychologist Gemma Cheney explains why safety measures may not be realistic at every key stage

Gemma Cheney

Psychology of social distancing

As teachers get ready to welcome more children back to school, moving desks further apart and marking out two-metre intervals on the playground, many will be concerned about how they will make social distancing guidelines work in practice, particularly with their youngest learners.

Adults have a key role to play in helping children to make sense of the world, especially when there is a significant change to how things usually work – a global pandemic, for instance. 

Children view risk differently from adults, which is important to keep in mind. How they understand what is going on around them and what things they should worry about changes according to their developmental stage – which is linked not just to their chronological age, but to other factors, such as their experience of life and their physical and mental health, both now and prior to the current crisis. 

So, what does this mean for how children will respond to social distancing requirements when they return to school? And how can teachers help them to stay safe while minimising any negative effect on their wellbeing?

How will social distancing work at key stage 1?

Until the age of three, most children struggle to understand things they can’t see. This makes it very difficult to explain to them what illness means – including what causes illness and what goes on inside our bodies. 

Very young children also tend to be mostly focused on the here and now and have a limited understanding of the future and time in general. They generally expect that what has happened before will happen again. 

Children under three are most focused on the basics: food, sleep, play and physical closeness. Difficulties accessing these things will have a big impact on their wellbeing. 

Schools can help pupils of this age by keeping explanations short, and routines as normal as possible. Play should still be a priority, as well as keeping other basic needs met. To manage social distancing, simple explanations are best. For example, “We are all trying not to touch or play closely because it keeps everyone safe at the moment. You can hug at home, but not at school.”

Pupils aged between four and seven years continue to be most focused on their immediate environment and how they feel at that moment, as well as what is happening next or soon. They still struggle to understand things they cannot picture, which means they may find it hard to distinguish between symptoms they should worry about and those that might be more ordinary. 

However, since they are beginning to understand healthy behaviours, this age is a good time for teachers to reinforce the message that washing hands will help to stop spreading germs. Often, explanations using stories and characters to correct misunderstandings will be helpful. 

This age group are also beginning to learn about verbally expressing emotion, so helping them to name their (and your) feelings will be useful when they encounter situations that seem strange or concerning. Until this age, group social distancing may be learned as a rule, but it will not make real sense to pupils. When they are in need of comfort, most children will still approach a trusted adult for physical reassurance. 

It might help for schools to think about how to offer this physical feedback in alternative ways. These could include having a special sign to show them that you have them in mind, offering a blanket they could wrap themselves in, or providing a special calming place in the school that makes them feel cosy. 

What about older pupils?

By the time pupils reach KS2, in general they will be better able to understand time, and will have an increasingly sophisticated awareness of illness and death. Although children between the ages of seven and 12 years are probably able to understand that it is helpful to follow medical advice, they may still need frequent reminders about what they need to do. 

These pupils are now able to think of themselves as separate and different from others, who they know may have needs that are not the same as their own. At this age, children are also working on the skill of verbalising distress – they are still more likely to express it as a physical symptom, such as a headache or stomach ache. 

What can teachers do to help children of this age to cope with the current situation? For starters, they can encourage emotional expression in a variety of ways, including drawing, stories and asking questions. It can be helpful for adults to acknowledge their own feelings and ideas they have for coping.

At this important developmental stage, the rules about social distancing are likely to be better understood, but will still be stressful and, at times, upsetting for children.

How will teenagers be affected?

Students aged 13 and above are beginning to be informed by sources of information outside of their parents and teachers. Peers and the media become increasingly important from 13 onwards.

Students of this age are more able to imagine the future, so they may consequently worry about things that may or may not happen. It is important that teachers acknowledge these worries and support students to establish a good understanding of their own feelings. This might include providing quality information or asking questions about what they think. Teachers can also make use of positive peer relationships by suggesting ways in which students could help others that are safe and appropriate. 

In terms of social distancing, this age group may be one of the most difficult to influence, but schools can help by using contemporary social references, such as role models from popular culture and positive social media content to help reinforce healthy messages and behaviour.

What can schools do to support staff?

Children have their own ways of coping already, based on what has happened in their lives so far, so different children react differently to stressful situations. In general, they have a good capacity to cope with adversity as long as the adults around them are safe, containing and coping well enough themselves. It is therefore incredibly important to pay attention and address the worries of school staff to ensure they are able to provide the best opportunities for children to make sense of and adapt to all the changes associated with the Covid-19 crisis. Providing adults space to voice concern, feel supported and put into place their own strategies for accessing comfort and support is essential to providing good-quality support to children.

Gemma Cheney is principal clinical psychologist for Newham child and adolescent mental health service.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Gemma Cheney

Latest stories

Teacher mental health: There has been a big increase in staff signed off with stress, new figures show

‘Teachers cannot be mental health professionals’

Supporting young people with mental health challenges will need a big investment, says children and families minister, but she argues the government's latest funding will provide the money needed
Vicky Ford MP 10 May 2021