Managing Student Concerns Related to the Coronavirus

During the last several weeks the severity of the coronavirus has sparked global panic. Citizens of China are taking measures to protect themselves and their families from a potentially deadly virus. As a result, the New Year holiday has been extended and many children won’t be going back to school until the 17th of February. Most will continue to receive their online instruction as usual. The situation in China is an incredibly scary one, and one that we will likely have to navigate in the classroom over the next few weeks. One of my middle school students lost her aunt to the virus. I’ve always been particularly concerned with how potentially traumatic situations can impact young kids. I made it part of my graduate studies in TESOL. I’m not a mental health professional, but hope this article at the very least raises awareness as to how we can approach this issue with our kids.

Creating a Positive Distraction

This is especially important with young kids. This situation is undoubtedly something that parents and relatives will be discussing. It’s likely something the kids are seeing and hearing about on the news. Whenever there is a major catastrophic event, mental health professionals often talk about the importance of getting kids away from the TV and getting them outside to play or do things that kids normally do. For a lot of our students, going outside is not an option. Let’s allow our classrooms to be a positive distraction for 25 or 50 minutes out of their day. If students don’t mention the coronavirus or the precautions that they’re taking, don’t mention it. Carry on as though it was business as usual. 


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Be Extra Understanding

Effective classroom management is such an important part of the learning process. Nowadays, our kids may be a little antsy. One student told me today that she hasn’t been outside in nearly two weeks. As a grown man, if I was in the house for nearly two weeks, I would be going crazy. Imagine an eight-year-old who hasn’t been out of the house for two weeks. If students get off task or you find them interrupting classmates, try to be understanding- especially if you observe this to be abnormal behavior for the child. At the same time, we do need to manage our classrooms effectively. If you have students who are often off-task and exhibiting behavior that is consistent with the norm, don’t be afraid to use the same classroom management techniques that you would normally use to properly deliver your lessons. 

Consider the Timing

This outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time- the Spring Festival. This is a time when these families really look forward to getting together. Unfortunately, many families may have had to forego their travel plans as a result of quarantine and other precautions surrounding the coronavirus. Some of my students have gone to see relatives and been unable to return to their homes until it is safe to do so. These children may be trying to take their classes in houses that are filled with members of their extended family. They may not be able to sit at a desk in their own room and take their classes as usual. Again, try to be extra understanding of their unique circumstances.

Validate Feelings

Some of the hardest conversations that I’ve had with my students over my fifteen years as a teacher is when they tell me about the loss of a loved one. This may be something that we have to deal with during this time. If you find yourself faced with this, try to be empathetic in every way possible. Also, remember that our kids are really strong young people who manage incredibly demanding schedules. I always make an effort to offer my deepest and most sincere condolences. Then, I do my best to challenge them and deliver the best instruction possible. I’ve found this more to be the case with my older students. Younger students seem lack a complete understanding of the severity of the situation. 

Be Mindful of Age

Building on the last point, remember that if you have very young learners, they likely won’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. Five-year-olds probably just know they have to stay inside so they don’t get sick. I wouldn’t make an effort to explain anything further. They may repeat something they have heard their parents say or something they heard on the news. Research shows that most kids at this age form their opinions based on the what the adults in their lives say. That is, they don’t form their own opinions. Without a background in education, most people are able to figure that out. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t expand on anything they say as it likely will be lost on them. Saying something along the lines of, “I’m glad that you’re staying safe, and I want you to be healthy,” is usually enough. If they try to speak further about it, transition to the subject of the lesson. If you have older students or young adults who you feel are capable of discussing the situation, then use your best judgment. 

Final Thoughts

It’s incredibly unfortunate to see a lot of students that I’ve had for many years feel so afraid about a potentially deadly sickness. As adults, we are capable of understanding that the disease will be contained, and life will eventually return to normal. Kids may lack this perspective. Again, this article is in no way meant to be a ‘mental health how-to guide.’ It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about throughout my lessons today and hope it raises others’ awareness to the issue of teaching the kids who are going through this difficult time. Also, perhaps consider how we can help. I’ve also decided to volunteer a few hours a week at my school until the kids go back on the 17th. I hope to do fun online classes for my students. As opposed to content-based instruction, this would be an opportunity for kids to do more free speaking and play games. I’m hoping this receives some interest from the students and parents as they navigate this difficult situation.  

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