Viral talk with children

What do we say to children about coronavirus and COVID-19? For this sensitive topic, we don’t believe that any one generic resource can work for all children. Instead, we encourage careful, child-led conversations. Below we share information to guide age and context-appropriate conversations. We encourage you to share this information and resources with families in your service.

What we talk about when we talk about COVID-19

Early Childhood Australia has been asked in recent weeks for a ‘video explainer’ for children to help them understand the new coronavirus and COVID-19. Having reviewed a range of tools developed internationally or for older children, we have decided not to create a resource at this point.

The fact is, young children around Australia are at different stages of understanding COVID-19, depending on a range of factors such as:

  • their age
  • their exposure to the news and media
  • parental and educator response to, and explanations of, the news
  • their geographic context (e.g. some children in remote areas may have little need to know about the virus)
  • experiences within their family.

For this sensitive topic, we don’t believe that any one generic resource can work for all children. Instead we encourage careful, child-led conversations. As with all times of change, children respond well to routines and rituals, so maintaining consistency in both familial and educational contexts is vital.

If you are responding to children’s questions or explaining the virus to your own child or children in your care, we ask that you consider the ethics of conversations. Provide enough information to explain, without providing too much information to cause undue stress or anxiety. (And definitely avoid getting so specific that you breach another person’s privacy.)

As we saw with the 2019–2020 bushfires—and as we know from many decades of research—we also need to be careful about exposure to news media, as this can increase their anxiety. Careful co-viewing and age-appropriate explanations are needed to explore the COVID-19 topic with children. You know your child or children best and so working in partnership (families and educators together) is important at this time. For example some parents may prefer you not to talk with children about the virus, while some may welcome discussing this. As an educator or team leader, you can draw on the practices and protocols you have in place to communicate with families around other sensitive issues.

We also recommend that, as you work with children, you ensure that conversations are relevant and child-led. Recognise too that some children may need more or less information than others. We have put together some suggestions for both parents and educators to consider when dealing with children at differing levels of understanding and capacity.

For very young children from birth to two

A simple reminder to wash their hands may be all that is needed. Some parents may choose to verbalise changes and social distancing measures by saying things such as ‘there are some illnesses about and so we can’t see your grandparents, we can phone them or connect via facetime or video until everyone is healthy again’. Likewise, brief explainers on why hygiene measures are in place can be useful: ‘there are some illnesses about and so we need to wash our toys or wipe this trolley before we use it’. Use songs and games and as always with children of any age, but especially pre-verbal children, an adult’s calm and reassuring tone, builds feelings of security and safety.

Some very young children may demonstrate changes in behaviour at this time (eg seeking handwashing or wiping more frequently). Being aware of this and responding calmly is most effective. Adopting a calm manner can be helpful for settling adult anxiety too.

For two- to three-year-old children

This group, often referred to as toddlers, is likely to be aware of changes. For example that shelves are empty or less food is available in the supermarket. They may notice that parents are working from home. They may demonstrate insecurity by requiring more comfort and support, not wanting to separate from families or crying more easily.

For this age group, simple yet factual explanations are particularly important, even if they are unable to completely understand. For example, an educator explained ‘Germs are tiny things, so tiny we can’t see them with our eyes—but they can make us sick. We have to take extra care to wash our hands so we wash off the germs before we play/eat/go home’. Again, explaining simple hygiene is something that many early childhood educators do well and reminding children of these is vital. Some parents at this stage may choose to outline that there is a specific ‘germ or virus people are worried about at the moment. This virus can make some people (such as grandparents) very sick and so we need to take extra care’.

For children aged four to six years

At this age more scientific information is often appropriate. Depending on a child’s understanding you could build on the explanation for toddlers by adding more detail. This age is a time for questions and children may be asking questions such as ‘Why are people wearing masks?’ A virus is an abstract concept and may be hard for children to understand, but you could include simple experiments to help explain (e.g. the water and cinnamon/pepper experiment where soap helps repel the particles/germs—see here

At this age you could specifically talk about the corona virus: ‘something so tiny we need a powerful microscope to see’. Or you can explain that the corona virus is named after its shape—with corona being linked to the word crown. Children at this age who are watching the news may seek additional information, which is why speaking honestly about this is important, even when you’re unsure.

School-age children

This age group is highly likely to be aware of, and affected by, COVID-19—impacts via children not attending school or concepts that they’ve seen on the media. Take particular care to co-view news media where possible and have active conversations about your response—as a family or as a school or OSHC service.

ABC Kids has some excellent resources for this age group including a Behind The News (BTN) episode, outlining news responses. Children in this age group are also likely to be discussing protective behaviours at school and trying to understand concepts such as social distancing. Again, engage in careful, child-led conversations to help children process this time and develop a healthy response without creating a situation of anxiety.

Educational and service leaders

Early childhood education and care service leaders also need to consider educator anxiety at this time. Some educators may not have the confidence or capacity to address children’s questions about the virus and the changes it is causing in all our lives. Consider this when developing strategies so that you have ways to support staff as they navigate these questions.

Remember that adults, like children, benefit from sticking to routines and favoured activities in times of stress. Try to include healthy eating, exercise and favourite activities as much as possible. The simple act of discussing a plan or developing strategies to respond to children’s and families’ questions and supporting each other can boost feelings of capability and wellbeing and give some shape to the uncertainties.

It’s good to remind yourself that the first five years of a child’s life children’s is a time where it is common for children to demonstrate anxiety for a range of reasons. For example,(e.g. separation anxiety is common as are tensions during periods of transition to new rooms or to school.

When parents and other adults are stressed (as they are likely to be at this time) children often unconsciously pick up on this. It means that drop off times, sleep and settling may also be more than usually challenging or a child may regress to old patterns such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking and similar. Because of these common factors, we should take care not to add unnecessarily to anxiety; ensure all conversations about coronavirus and COVID-19 are child-led.

Some children may not be interested in this at all or may be interested only briefly (e.g. they may ask a specific question but then continue with whatever they were doing). Not every question from a child needs to be part of a long conversation or exploration of COVID-19. So, gauge the situation and take it one step at a time.

Some links to consider:

Emerging Minds resources

Beyond Blue resources

Be You resources

Raising Children Network

Kate Highfield

Dr Kate Highfield is an experienced teacher, teacher educator and researcher, working at Australian Catholic University, based in Canberra. Kate has spent over twenty five years working as a classroom teacher and as a teacher educator and researcher. Kate’s work (supported by a range of grants and partnership projects) explores effective technology integration, with a focus on potential impacts on learning (for adults and children), pedagogy and play. This work specifically focusses on the use of technology in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).

3 thoughts on “Viral talk with children”

    Alicia Buxton says:

    Hi Kate,
    I would love to hear from you as I also got experience in child care. I also studied at Macquarie University.
    Where and how can I get involve.
    Can me at 0412155967

    Early Childhood Australia says:

    Hi Alicia, Thanks for the comment. Can you please send me an email, so i can put you in contact with Kate?

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thanks Kate! Very sensible suggestions and appreciate your idea of individualized approach to talking about COVID. I learnt the hard way as a parent about the problem of giving way too much information.

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