“Am I going to get sick?”
“Is someone I love going to die?”
“Is school dangerous?”
As children head back to school this fall, many are asking questions that teachers may feel unprepared to answer. After all, kids’ concerns this fall are new, and in many cases, heavier than questions typically asked.
While we can’t provide a script for how to respond to each question a student may ask, we want to provide some guidance on appropriate ways to handle these tough conversations.
What’s the question being asked?
When it comes to challenging questions from kids, it’s important to ask yourself, “What is this child really asking?” There’s that classic story where a child asks a parent, “Where did John’s baby sister come from?” and the parent takes a deep breath, ready to respond about how babies are made, when the child reveals that what they’re really asking is what room John’s baby sister just appeared from. It’s important to answer the question being asked, not assuming the question has more meaning than it does. A child asking, “Why do we keep washing our hands so much?” may have anxiety about the virus, but may also be tired of the interruptions to wash hands. A simple, “What do you mean?” or, “Can you tell me more about that?” can help the child re-phrase the question to be sure you’re answering what they’re really asking.
Many questions may really be as serious as they seem, but it’s always good to check first.
What’s behind the question?
Many questions really are as serious as they seem, and that’s when it’s important to understand what is behind the question. With many concerns kids are facing these days, it’s safe to guess that fear or anxiety are the overwhelming emotions behind the questions. If a child is asking about the virus, about the safety of their classroom, about the precautions and procedures in place, or anything else, take a moment to observe and reflect on the question. Does their voice or body language reveal any hidden emotions? Do they ask the same question over and over, despite receiving an answer each time? Kids may be using questions to get to an underlying question they don’t know how to articulate: Am I safe?
Comfort, don’t promise
There are no guarantees in this moment in time – we certainly can’t promise kids that school will be free from the virus, that their loved ones will all be spared harm, or that the world will be safe for them. We can’t promise that – and we shouldn’t attempt to. Any statement such as, “You’ll be okay!” or, “Our classroom is safe – no virus here!” is disingenuous. And should the promises you made be broken, students may have a hard time trusting you in the future.
So if we can’t promise things will be okay – what do we do? We provide comfort and support. Consider these three elements: validate, connect, comfort. Validate sounds like, “I hear you.” “I understand that we have a lot of questions and concerns about the virus.” “It makes sense that you’re unsure about what is going on right now.” Connect sounds like, “I’m here with you through this.” “Our class is a team and we support each other.” And comfort (without promises!) sounds like, “Here’s what we can do.” “Here’s what I am doing.”
One of the best things we can do is to emphasize all of the ways that we are working to provide safety. So instead of, “The virus can’t get us in here!”, we might say, “I understand the virus is scary and we have a lot of questions and concerns about it. I hear you wondering if the virus can get into our classroom. Well, let me show you all of the different things we have in our classroom that will help keep us safe.”
Connect, connect, connect
And finally, above all, the most important thing you can do to help answer kids’ concerns about COVID involves what teachers are naturally good at – connecting with kids. The more kids feel safe and secure in your classroom (or virtual classroom), the more their concerns will – at least temporarily – be subsided. This is a scary time for kids, and they need to know that there are adults who care about them and are their advocates and allies.
So remember, determine what the child is really asking, try to get a sense of what’s behind the question, comfort – but don’t promise, and most of all – connect.