Helping Students Cope with COVID and Death

By Meghan Wenzel, CEI Researcher & Writer

Uncertainty, change, fear, and loss can make anyone feel anxious, confused, and sad. In a short amount of time, COVID-19 has turned everyone’s lives upside down. Schools have closed, families are confined inside, jobs have disappeared, and loved ones have died. It’s important to check in with children and see how they’re doing during this difficult time. Children are trying to make sense of events around them and acclimate to the new “normal”, and many have lost family members, family friends, or even teachers to COVID-19. To help children adjust, both teachers and parents must find ways to ensure that children feel safe and supported, help them identify and sort through their emotions, and create new routines and ways of coping. 

Help Children Feel Safe and Supported

With the world changing around us, teachers and families can take deliberate actions to cultivate a sense of safety, connectedness, and hope for children (Teaching Tolerance, 2020). Remember that students have different home life situations, so be compassionate. Safety, connectedness, and hope will help protect children from feelings of fear, lack of control, and grief. Teaching Tolerance recommends that teachers foster these protective factors: 

Sense of safety

  • Talk about the virus and discuss concrete ways they can stay safe and healthy (i.e. physical distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks).
  • Reach out, provide space, and help students to connect with teachers or other trusted adults such as a counselor to talk about their safety concerns. Offer students a way to connect if there is something that they need help with or are worried about.
  • Suggest students talk to friends or family members on the phone or via video-conferencing.
  • Invite students to plan virtual playdates to distract them from their worries.
  • Advise families and caregivers to avoid watching the news in front of their children as it can be upsetting.
  • Keep as much of a regular family routine as possible and plan activities such as going for walks or hikes or playing board or video games together.

Connectedness

  • Make time to ask students about something fun they are doing right now.
  • Greet students by name and create a touch-free or virtual routine (similar to a handshake, a hug, or a high five) to invite connection, either online or at meal pick-up.
  • Consider putting students in small groups to work on projects or activities together online or by phone. These activities may include virtual puzzles or scavenger hunts. The key is to help students feel connected to others in the class by sharing an important part of themselves that helps the class get to know them better.  Promote a sense of community by highlighting each student’s contribution to the group activity.
  • Plan activities through the use of web-conferencing sites that allow students to see, hear, and interact with each other and their teacher.
  • Incorporate play and fun activities into online lesson plans or take-home packets.

Hope

  • Have students connect with someone they respect in their family or community to ask how they have stayed hopeful in troubled times.
  • Teach about other historical times of crisis, including how communities coped with them, how the crises ended, and how the communities rebounded.
  • Encourage students to get fresh air and move when possible.
  • Share some of the many stories of hope and helping that have come out of the current crisis.
  • Regularly share positive affirmations or highlight a strength of a student—it can go a long way right now.

Help Students Sort through their Emotions

Many students feel overwhelmed, confused, angry, frustrated, and sad, which can certainly make focusing on school and learning more difficult. Teachers and parents should help children identify, discuss, and manage their emotions. 

  • Identify emotions and discuss how they can make us act certain ways (i.e. Emma might be mean to her sister because she’s scared and wants to feel in control, Dad might be short tempered because he’s stressed about possibly losing his job).
  • Read stories about the pandemic together and discuss. Some suggestions include:
  • Georgie and the Giant Germ
  • Trinka and Sam Fighting the Big Virus: Trinka, Sam, and Littletown Work Together 
  • ZERO TO THREE experts’ favorite picture and activity books for supporting young children through stressful and traumatic situations
  • A psychologist wrote a fairy tale about COVID-19 and coping. There’s also an article explaining more about the story.
  • Invite children to create a space that feels safe and comfortable for them to express their feelings as they come and go.
  • Promote movement and self-expression. Encourage students to make up dance routines to their favorite songs, participate in online yoga and workout classes, or make an in-home scavenger hunt in their free time.

Additional resources:

Addressing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators

Helping Children with Traumatic Separation or Traumatic Grief Related to COVID-19

Create New Routines and Ways of Coping 

Establishing new routines and maintaining clear communication will help students feel supported and safe and reduce their stress levels. Creating routines lets children know what to expect, and open and honest communication will help them understand what’s going on. 

  • Work with children to develop new routines and take time to explain changes. Involving them will give them a sense of control and increase their confidence that important adults in their lives are capable of taking care of them. 
  • Encourage students to share what they do and do not understand about their current situation. Using open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling about not being in school?” can start the conversation. 
  • Consider starting remote learning sessions with relational rituals. For example, teachers and students can share one tough moment and one hopeful moment of the day or one new lesson they’ve learned about themselves during the day. 
  • Incorporate mindfulness and encourage students to check in with their minds and bodies periodically to see how they feel. Have students relax and breathe deeply – inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, and exhaling for four counts. 
  • Have students reflect on what they’re grateful for at the end of each online learning session. You can ask students to think, share, write, or draw about things they’re grateful for, good things their families are doing, or even helpers they’re grateful for. 
  • Find ways to celebrate and honor milestones. Acknowledge disappointment but problem solve together to figure out if you can honor the missed opportunity later or celebrate in a different way now.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has completely changed our lives for the time-being, and we need to come together and support each other in this challenging time. Millions of people have lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of people have died in the United State alone, and everyone is living in a new reality. Teachers and parents can help their children adjust and develop coping mechanisms by making them feel safe and supported, helping them process through their emotions, and establishing new routines. 

References

Brodka, D. (2020). The evil king virus and a good quarantine

Care Dimensions Children’s Program Staff. (2020, March 24). Helping children cope with loss during COVID-19 pandemic

Gosh Ippen, C. M. & Brymer, M. (2020, April 18). Fighting the big virus: Trinka, Sam, and Littletown work together

National Association of School Psychologists. (2015). Addressing grief: Tips for teachers and administrators

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2020). Helping children with traumatic separation or traumatic grief related to COVID-19

Ribaudo, J., Safyer, P., Stein, S. F., & Rosenblum, K. (2020). Georgie and the giant germ. Tender Press. 

Teaching Tolerance. (2020, March 23). A trauma-informed approach to teaching through coronavirus.

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