How to Talk to Your Child about the Coronavirus

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, will almost certainly be one of the defining childhood events for today’s kids. When school closes for weeks, students are going to take notice, develop fears, and ask questions. So how can you answer those questions in a way that satisfies their curiosity without creating panic? And how can you use that curiosity as an opportunity to teach lasting lessons and encourage a love of learning? 

Use the opportunity to talk about hygiene and healthy habits

As the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated, it’s important to exercise strong hygiene habits like regular (and thorough) handwashing, coughing/sneezing into an elbow versus a hand or open air, and being mindful of surfaces that are touched by hundreds of hands. But these habits are important in combating all kinds of ailments, not just pandemics. Use this unprecedented event to help kids establish the kinds of habits that will prevent them from getting a cold or the flu—and from potentially passing it along to others. The next few months will be particularly memorable for children, the “Where were you when…” event of their childhoods. That importance makes this an excellent opportunity for them to develop and stick to healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

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Use language that avoids stigma

Illnesses like COVID-19 transmit from person to person as they move around the globe, but very few people are consciously and intentionally transmitting them. The language we use to describe the spread of the virus has the power to unfairly and inaccurately villainize individuals and cultures—but only if we let it. According to UNICEF, it’s helpful to use the following guidelines when discussing coronavirus, especially with children:

“DO: talk about the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

DON’T: attach locations or ethnicity to the disease. Remember, viruses can’t target people from specific populations, ethnicities, or racial backgrounds.

DO: talk about “people who have COVID-19,” “people who are being treated for COVID-19,” “people who are recovering from COVID-19,” or “people who died after contracting COVID-19.”

DON’T: refer to people with the disease as “COVID-19 cases” or “victims.”

DO: talk about people “acquiring” or “contracting” COVID-19. 

DON’T: talk about people “transmitting COVID-19,” “infecting others,” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame.

DO: speak accurately about the risk from COVID-19, based on scientific data and latest official health advice.

DON’T: repeat or share unconfirmed rumors, and avoid using hyperbolic language designed to generate fear like “plague,” “apocalypse,” etc.

DO: talk positively and emphasize the importance of effective prevention measures, including following tips on handwashing. For most people, this is a disease they can overcome. There are simple steps we can all take to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable safe.”

Encourage curiosity in your children

When such an impactful event occurs—and school shutting down for several weeks certainly counts as impactful—children are bound to be curious about it. Curiosity is a craving for knowledge—a perfect learning opportunity. This situation presents a number of lessons to be learned: it’s a real world classroom in which the globe is looking at the same graphs and maps, giving kids the chance to develop graphic literacy and an interest in learning about other countries. The coronavirus response—from healthcare workers, to volunteer organizations like the Red Cross—is a chance for children to learn about career paths and to be inspired by those whose first instinct is to help. And both virus growth models and stock market fluctuations provide plenty of real world math problems.

[RELATED: Facing a Coronavirus School Closure? How to Work From Home While Your Kids are Learning From Home]

Keep calm and carry on

Children look to adults to know how to react in stressful situations. Given that their routines have been turned upside down by school closures, event cancellations, and in many cases the inability to take a trip or attend a gathering they were looking forward to, it’s easy, then, to feel a sense of fear or dread—the world around them is taking extreme measures. Reassure your student that they’re not in immediate, personal danger, but explain that the world is working together to keep people safe and that by staying home, washing their hands, and taking other precautions they’re doing their part to help everyone. 

Beyond that, try to establish productive routines while school is out. Children thrive on routines, which help create a sense of normalcy. Replicating a typical school day—waking up on time, putting on school clothes, doing educational activities with “recess” breaks for playtime—is a great way to not only prevent academic and disciplinary slide, but also establish a feeling of normalcy and calm amidst a hectic situation. 

For that reason, Varsity Tutors has created a Virtual School Day. This resource includes live, online classes tailored to each student’s interests and grade level, independent study activities, and parent resources to help create productive scholastic routines during COVID-19 school closures. 

Interested parents can register here.