It's impossible to avoid conversations with children about Covid-19, but you might find yourself struggling to find the right words.
What is the right thing to say? How do we know we’ve not been too honest and over-worried them? Or in an attempt to avoid panicking them, have we been too dismissive, and inadvertently caused them to worry further?
Sarah Younie, professor of education innovation at De Montfort University, is trying to help. She has created free resources for children called ‘A Germ’s Journey’.
In Younie’s research, she’s shown that children who are taught about influenza, viruses, and the link to hygiene will go on to be more thorough in their handwashing.
Why might children struggle to see the importance of handwashing?
Getting younger children clued up
When children are very young, the threat of germs is difficult to understand. A germ is invisible, and because they can’t see it, they struggle to comprehend the abstract concept of infection or transmission.
Helen Pinnington, early years foundation lead at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Bedhampton, Hampshire, has found success in explaining the invisible nature of germs using glitter.
"We begin by talking to the children about the idea of germs spreading. We then show the children a tray of oil, coated in glitter," she says.
The children put their hands in the oil and then move around the room and shake hands – as the glitter spreads, they can see the visible spread of the 'glitter' germs.
For more ideas about teaching students about germs, you can read Helen's blog on teaching students the importance of good hygiene.
So how can we talk about it?
Although it is a difficult subject, not talking about Covid-19 could make children worry more.
Instead, experts say, we should be trying to equip children with facts to help them see the importance of good hygiene.
When answering your students questions about Covid-19, Younie suggests that adults keep in mind that it is really important to not scare children, and that the words you use should be adapted to suit the age of the child you’re speaking to.
For example, ‘jumped’ can be used to describe how a germ can travel when you’re speaking to young children, but older children would understand the concept of ‘transfer’.
So for example, a conversation with younger-aged primary children could run like this:
Q: What is Covid-19?
A: It is a bit like the germs you get when you get a cold.
Q: Where did Covid-19 come from?
A: The germs came from animals and jumped into humans, then as people travel around the world they bring the germs with them.
Q: Why do they call it bat flu?
A: Scientists believe the germs may have come from bats.
Q: If you get Covid-19 does it mean you're dirty?
A: No, not at all; you are not dirty, you have just caught the Covid-19 germs from someone else, or picked them up from a surface. Catching Covid-19 happens the same way as when you catch a cold.
If you want a video to show your students about the virus, then this CBBC Newsround video is really informative, and child friendly.
Time to talk
What about students who are feeling particularly anxious about the virus?
First off, you have to ascertain if their anxiety is borne out of a legitimate concern.
If you have a pupil who is asking questions because they are worried about something that is understandably upsetting, for example, the health of a grandparent, or someone who is unwell, then Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cambridge University, suggests practical suggestions can help.
“Be as honest as possible, but also talk about what they and their relative or friend can do to stay safe,” Ford suggests. “You might say ‘I can see you are worried and I understand why. You can help them by washing your hands lots and talking to them via phone rather than visiting directly. They might like to have a card or letter from you.’”
But what if you are faced with a student who has been upset by false information, or has catastrophised the problem by themselves?
In this situation, Ford suggests a sympathetic, but firm approach.
“Sympathise with their anxiety, but try and focus them on what they can do to keep themselves as safe as possible,” she says. “Tell them to hand wash thoroughly, singing happy birthday twice and ensuring that you do the backs of the hands, between your fingers and the thumbs as well as the palms. Remind them to carry tissues to catch sneezes or coughs and then binning or flushing them down the loo.”
It might help to point students in the direction of reputable news sites, and show them how to fact check their information using websites like snopes.com.
In all our conversations with young people about Covid-19, Ford says we should be mindful to avoid assuming what our students do and don’t understand.
“I would ask them to explain what they understand first, as there might be all kinds of misconceptions,” she says.
Any other hard and fast rules? Julie Cole, family support service lead at the Fountain Centre Royal Surrey County Hospital, believes the following will help.
1. Do let kids talk
"Rather than silence them, or say they are talking 'rubbish', let your students speak about what is worrying them. This will allow their fears to come to the surface," she says.
2. Don't let fear catch on
Although talking is good, you need to avoid students winding each other up.
"While talking is good, don't let fear become contagious," she says. "Seek to not let pupils whip each other into a frenzy."
If you spot this happening, try to defuse the situation.
"Gather your students and have a question and answer session or an open discussion where teachers can hone down the facts. Use these groups to help dissipate fear."
3. Do reassure them that steps are being taken
Cole says it is good to point out the changes that have happened and highlight how it is for their protection.
"You can say something like 'these measures are in place, and more might come into place but they are there to help ensure as few people as possible catch the virus'," she suggests.
4. Don't make promises
You must be very careful to not promise something you can't guarantee.
"You can't tell a child that everything is going to be OK as we just don't know," Cole says. "They might be worried about an ill grandparent or parent and we can't promise they won't catch the virus."
5. Do expect regression
Children might regress in their behaviour, warns Cole. So don't be surprised if a normally well-adjusted child begins to struggle with the school routine.
"They might cling onto parents as they come into school, and not want to be there," says Cole. "This is normal in times of crisis and we have to accept this can happen."