How teachers can support and talk to students as they return to school?

Tips for teachers to have reassuring conversations with students

UNICEF ECARO
Teacher is working with a student.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Grigoryan
20 September 2021

Children like routine – wake up, have breakfast, attend school and play with their friends. But the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted this, and school closures affected them the most. The return to school is important because going to school and attending in-person helps children learn the best and improve their physical and nutritional health and their social-emotional development. They need to interact with you, other teachers, and their peers. After months of school closures and as they return to school, your students are likely to have many questions.

Finding the right way to talk to your students, acknowledging their concerns and providing honest answers to their questions will help them navigate uncertainty and reassure them. It will offer a sense of normalcy, though it is a different one. You, as a teacher, play an important role in facilitating a child’s learning, well-being and growth.

Here we bring a few tips on how you can talk to your students about COVID-19 as schools reopen.

 

Be a good listener

Create an open and encouraging environment where students can ask questions. Pay attention and be a good listener when they ask questions. Answer their questions honestly. If you do not know the answer, it is fine to tell them you do not know.

You can invite young students at preschools and primary schools to express their emotions in familiar ways, by providing an opportunity for them to draw, play or act out their feelings. You might provide a simple prompt such as inviting students to think about how they are feeling and then to draw these feelings or to make up a story or song. Be sure to leave enough time and space for students to express themselves. Free play and guided play may offer opportunities for children to express themselves than more structured forms of play. Listening to what children say during imaginative play and play with props can offer valuable insight into emotions they might be feeling but not necessarily talking about with you.

You can adopt a different approach for adolescent students. Invite them to have a conversation – ask questions such as what are they hearing in school or seeing on TV or what is appearing on their social media feed.  Students may ask the same questions again and again, be patient and explain to them. Listening closely provides an affirmation that what they are saying is important and helps them to be transparent. They might have mixed feelings and sometimes, they want to get things off their chest. Pay attention to their body language, facial expressions and the use of words. It helps to grasp the situation they are in.

Be mindful that talking about the pandemic doesn’t take over the classroom discussion for long periods, but ensure that they are heard and supported. Some students may show disinterest or discomfort when discussing the topic. Varying your types of communication and offering different ways for students to discuss this with you might better support students’ diverse communication and emotional needs. Consider meeting with small groups of students at a time or one-on-one, setting up a journal system where students can write entries, they wish you to read but do not wish to talk about aloud in class or inviting students to share their feelings in small groups of peers and assigning a ‘scribe’ or ‘reporter’ to share written or verbal notes on their conversation without classmates’ names.

    A girl is making art pieces during the arts session.
    UNICEF Armenia/2021/Grigoryan

    Use age-appropriate language to help them understand the information

    You know your students best and know how to talk to them. Talking or teaching a 6-year-old is different from a 16-year-old. When sharing information, it is important to make sure to adapt the language and explanation according to their age, developmental level, understanding of the topic and communication needs. Reassuringly provide facts and remind children that adults are working to address this concern, and give children actions they can take to protect themselves.

    Preschool

    Talk in simple language. You might say, “There is a tiny germ that is making people sick. The best way to keep ourselves safe from sickness is to wash our hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer. The doctors say that we can sing a song while we do that.” You can help them to adopt healthy behaviours and good hygiene. Answer honestly and clearly if they ask questions and try to frame things positively.

    You can also use visuals, drawings and cartoons for easy understanding as well as role-play to model, practice and reinforce healthy behaviours. While introducing new concepts or terminologies related to a pandemic, explain it to them in simple terms. Here are a few examples:

    • Physical distancing: Ask them to stretch their arms to maintain a safe distance from each other.
    • Quarantine: If someone has some contagious illness such as COVID-19, it is better to stay at home, with limited contact with others, to protect them from catching the disease.
    • Hybrid learning: They can come to the classroom and learn along with their friends, but there are times they need to learn at home using their smart devices such as laptops, tablets etc.,

    Primary school

    Invite your student to tell you anything they may have heard about COVID-19 and how they feel. You can ask, “Do you have any questions about the new virus that’s going around?” or “Do you know how to protect yourself properly?”. Answers to these questions give you a chance to learn more about how much children know about the virus and how to protect themselves and also to find out if they are hearing the wrong information.

    Give them time to ask questions and if you don’t know answers to those questions, use the opportunity to find answers on reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF websites and local public health websites. If they are anxious or feeling worried, provide appropriate assurances about the school’s efforts to keep them safe. Look for signs of increased anxiety or depression such as restlessness, feeling tense or nervous, pessimistic attitude, troubled concentrating, feeling guilty, sleeping in the class or persistently sad or worried. If you notice any of these, speak with the school guidance counsellor, psychologist or other mental health professional about appropriate steps to support these students.

    Secondary school

    Pay close attention to your students’ feelings and explore their questions and take time to acknowledge them, and offer support. Provide realistic assurances that schools, teachers and adults are doing their best to protect them. Children are likely to hear a lot of information – while parents are talking, from TV or on social media. Some of that information might not be accurate. They might have come across information about discrimination against a group of people, a place or a nation. They may lack knowledge on how COVID-19 spreads, have encountered rumours or have fears about the disease.  Acknowledge their concerns and clarify any misunderstanding. Invite them to share what they have heard and support them to break this information down into more understandable pieces. Welcome the opportunity to help them assess what they are hearing for accuracy. Encourage them to learn more about COVID-19 and discuss the importance of getting information from trusted sources. You can provide them with simple assignments such as preparing a poster on the health behaviours against COVID-19.

    Media literacy lessons enhance their ability to identify different types of media and critically analyse various messages being presented. This helps them to navigate misinformation and disinformation, become effective communicators and active citizens in society. You can help them go through simple steps when navigating the internet:

    • Assess the information source. Even when the information comes from friends and family, it is important to check the original source. When it comes to images or videos, they should also verify their authenticity. Some images are taken out of their original context to transmit a different message. They can check images using reverse image search tools provided by Google and TinEye
    • Go beyond the headlines as they may be intentionally sensational or provocative to get high numbers of clicks.
    • Check the date. Sometimes we encounter articles and stories that seem factual and relevant, but are actually outdated
    • Check their biases and emotions. When the stories, images, or anything we read or see make us angry, shocked, we should double-check it. Also, we should bear in mind that it is not because what we read matches our thoughts and expectations that is true. Thinking twice before sharing or spreading the information is always the best option to avoid more fake news.
    • Turn to fact-checkers and trusted sources. Acknowledge that several myths are circulating in the online space that have already been debunked. Turning to fact-checkers and trusted sources of information such as UNICEF and WHO can be a good way to find truth.
    Teacher talks to a student.
    UNICEF Armenia/2020/Galstyan

    Engage in dialogue with parents/caregivers

    Parents and caregivers are a crucial link between children and schools. They have played an active role in ensuring the continuity of children’s learning during the school closures and they can provide valuable insights from their own and children’s perspectives. A continuous dialogue with parents can help you understand students’ learning needs and home environment, which will support you to be better equipped while talking to students and help them achieve academically. Open and honest communication with parents and caregivers builds trust and fosters strong relationships in the long-term, and helps children have a complete learning experience.

    Knowing about your students’ parents – who they are, what they do and how they would like to be involved in their child’s learning – help in developing a strong relationship with them and also while having difficult conversations with them such as bringing about a concern about their children such as challenging behaviour or poor academic performance.

    • Prepare yourselves for what you want to say by jotting down the key points and questions you may have.
    • Set the conversation tone early by sharing positive comments about the student.
    • Be clear, specific and respectful.
    • Explain the steps you have already taken to address the concern.
    • Ask for their input and listen to what they have to say. You may learn something new about your student or see the situation from a different angle.
    • Direct the conversation by making it clear that you aren’t blaming them and keep the focus on finding solutions together.
    • Remember to share at least one specific compliment about the student.

     

    Share science-based facts from reputable sources

    Sharing accurate information and science-based facts about COVID-19 will help diminish students’ fears and anxieties around the disease and support their ability to cope with any secondary impacts in their lives. Provide a clear and sensitive explanation about what’s happening, especially when the student is not well-aware of the pandemic.

    Any conversations should always consider the specific needs of children, the guidance provided by your school and/or national authorities and be based on reputable sources such as UNICEF and the WHO.