How to inform and empower children during COVID-19

How to inform and empower children during COVID-19

My children, perhaps like yours, have had several COVID-19 questions over the last few weeks: “Why is everyone so worried about coronavirus?” “What are the schools doing to keep us safe?” “What if our school closes?” “Why should I worry if kids aren’t getting sick?” 

As faculty in Global Health Studies at Northwestern University, and as a parent, I know that if we’re going to address this pandemic, having children on board is important. We can inform and empower them to be meaningful participants in the weeks ahead. Here are some strategies.

Inform

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While COVID-19 may be affecting children less than older adults or people with vulnerable immune systems, children need to understand that they could inadvertently pass the virus onto others, and that there are things they can do to prevent it. Mention family members, friends, neighbors and school personnel who may become very ill if we don’t do our part. Changes in routines can save lives of others at higher risk. Help children understand the risk they can pose to others without knowing it, but also the things they can do to prevent risk.

The Centers for Disease Control published a useful guideline for informing children about COVID-19, as has UNICEF. These guides highlight the importance of adults staying calm, listening to children’s concerns, expressing care, addressing COVID-19-related stigma, and providing age-appropriate, honest and accurate information.

Children need to understand how germs are transferred between people: It’s a bit like finger painting, but without being able to see the paint. Germs are invisible and we can pick them up on one surface without knowing it and plant them on other surfaces where others can pick them up. 

Frequently washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water (which is more effective than hand sanitizer, but use sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable), and covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or tissue (which should be thrown away afterwards) are important steps we should all be taking. Remind children to wash hands with soap and water before and after recess, before and after meals, and after using the bathroom. More frequently if possible.

Tell children steps their school district and community are taking. Many school districts have adopted robust disinfecting procedures, while other schools have shutting down. More changes may come. 

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Children need to understand what the possibilities are and why they might be necessary, in an age-appropriate way. Letting children know about active steps being made to keep everyone safe can do a lot to reduce children’s anxiety and increase their flexibility in a fluid situation, especially if they know school closures might be for the wider public good.

Empower 

Helping children be part of the solution can achieve their buy in, and in pandemic situations we need as many people involved as possible, including kids.

The World Health Organization is advocating social distancing procedures. Practice some of these like a game: greeting with waves, elbow or foot bumps, namaste greetings or air high fives instead of hugs, kisses, or handshakes. Emphasize that these little changes can make children part of the solution. 

Have children set alarms or timers to remind themselves and household members to wash hands. Putting them in charge can give them a sense of control and responsibility. Many children enjoy working with timers, especially if they can help set them.

Get your kids involved in disinfecting. This can also become a game: give them a disinfecting wipe to clean light switches, steering wheels, door handles, doors and other frequently touched surfaces. Even if they don’t do it perfectly, it’s still a contribution. Study after study shows chores are good for children. Thank them for helping — praise works wonders.

If you are in a situation to do so, allow children to be part of helping others. Have children accompany you to check on neighbors, friends and loved ones via Skype or door to door (keep a 6 foot distance from others). Find out what supportive services are needed in your community, and if you’re able to offer some assistance, get children involved in the process: are there vulnerable people you know who need support? Organizations that need donations? Reminder, cash donations often go exponentially farther than in kind donations.

Finally, put children in charge of some of the preparation process if they must stay home: what games would they like to play? Art projects? Friends they’d like to Skype with? Make a list or schedule together. Putting children in charge gives them ownership of fun and takes pressure off caregivers. These lists can be a contingency plan in case schools in your area have to close.  

When it comes to addressing a pandemic like COVID-19, everyone has a part to play. Even children.

Noelle Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Instruction in the Program in Global Health Studies at Northwestern University, and a parent of three. Twitter @ncsullivan