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How to talk to your children about COVID-19

Schools, parents and enrichment centres have joined hands to find novel ways of talking to children about coronavirus so that they get the facts, without the panic

Schools are fighting the infection with information
Schools are fighting the infection with information

At the OneUp Library in Vasant Vihar, Delhi, small groups of two-three children can be seen practising the elbow bump to avoid shaking hands. A three-year-old, after a rather rigorous hand-sanitizing session, wonders out loud to her father: “Why do we have to sanitize our hands so much? It is so tiring."

Dalbir Kaur Madan, founder, OneUp, has been conducting read-aloud 10-minute sessions for the past three weeks from books about germs and cleanliness to create awareness among children about good hygiene in the times of Covid-19.

On any given day, one can find children (aged 2 and above) engaging with stories from Tiny: The Invisible World Of Microbes by Nicola Davies, Why I Sneeze, Hiccup And Yawn and Germs Make Me Sick by Melvin Berger. In between the sessions, they hum a special song with Madan about the correct way of washing hands. “Wrong information is misleading. But when you read something right in a book, it stays with you," says Madan, who has not just been imparting information to be used at home but has also been adhering to preventive measures within the library, such as fumigating the space, disinfecting the surfaces and encouraging the children to wash their hands and use sanitizers.

‘Knowledge is power against fear’

Fighting infection with information seems to be the motto at schools, homes and enrichment centres. And novel ways are being employed to talk to children about coronavirus so that they get the facts, sans the panic. Comic books seem to be one of the popular ways of engagement. The government has come up with one, titled Kids, Vaayu and Corona, to create awareness about Covid-19.

Another series has been created by Singapore-based Weiman Kow. Her 17-panel illustration on understanding how the virus spreads went viral on social media in India. It all started in January when Kow was down with a respiratory illness. It was around the same time that China was grappling with the Covid-19 disease. Kow realized there was need for a better way of making this complex topic more accessible to children. So she started drawing factual comics on Covid-19 and created a website called Comics for Good where she uploaded them all. Free downloads of translations of her comic in regional Indian languages are also available on the site. Kow has now taken this a step further by kickstarting an “International Kids Draw COVID-19 Facts" challenge to help children talk to their peers in their own unique ways. The challenge has received comic panel entries from Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, and the US, with some in the local languages, such as Bahasa Indonesian.

“It will be great if children from India could do comics in their mother tongue as well so that the more vulnerable populations will be able to read and understand them," says Kow, who used to be an art teacher and is now a full-time user-experience designer and part-time illustrator. One of the most touching panels has come from Singapore, about the need for social distancing. “Children with heart defects fall sick harder and take longer to recover. Stay home if you are sick. Keep us safe from Covid-19," writes the child.

According to Kow, people tend to feel helpless in the face of too much information, and it seems that only scientists and the government have the power to set things right. However, that is not true. Children, too, can take up this fight by learning about the virus from reputable health websites and passing on that information to others. Knowledge is power against fear, says Kow.

So, one of the rules in the challenge is that children need to refer to facts which come from the World Health Organization (WHO) or from the respective government’s official health websites.

The parent-school partnership

Schools across the country have also been coming up with ways to engage with children on the issue. Though educational institutions in all major cities are shut at the moment, they started imparting information when news of the Covid-19 outbreak emerged from China. Role plays, storytelling and illustrations about the right way to wash hands as well as reading sessions were held to sensitize children to good hygiene habits. At Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi, doctors from Sir Ganga Ram Hospital were called in to talk about preventive measures. All foreign and domestic trips from the school were cancelled.

It is impossible to get children to take a message seriously if the parents and teachers don’t talk in the same language. So, at Springdales School, for instance, the principal, Ameeta Mulla Wattal, has been sending regular updates and circulars to parents. It features pointers such as: refrain from travelling unless it’s an emergency, use the virtual world for communication without direct contact, and more.

This kind of approach creates a domino effect—if the parents are calm, they pass on that sense of assurance to their children.

Similarly, parent groups are doing their bit to supplement the schools’ communication. GurgaonMoms, a Facebook group of 33,500-plus members from the National Capital Region (NCR), has been sharing handy tips to be shared with children as well. Last week, the group posted an article on how to make sanitizer at home. “Fortis Hospitals have been sharing many articles on precautions and advisories. They also did a live Q&A to answer queries on the Covid-19, which was very well received," says Upasana Luthra, the director and administrator of the group.

There is also a Ms Anonymous feature, in which members, without sharing their usernames, can air their doubts and fears about how to talk to children, and other topics. A new corner has been introduced, dedicated to concerns about the Coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the schools are staying connected with both parents and students for positive reinforcement. Pathways School Gurgaon communicates through a weekly newsletter with tips on what parents can reiterate at home. “This message has to be driven to the children that while it’s a crisis, we are all dealing with it together," says Shefali Lakhina, deputy principal, primary school, Pathways. Learning has also gone virtual, so teachers are creating and sending videos online, setting small tasks for the children. “This is unprecedented and even the kids are amazed. It has been explained to the kids that the situation demands that you stay at home. So, we will support you with an online teaching programme," says Lakhina.

Wattal concurs and adds that children need to be intellectually stimulated even in such challenging times. Especially now that CBSE has postponed the exams. Springdales School has also taken on the mandate of sending material home, which will engage students in academic activities. This is being done through video links, crosswords and quizzes connected to the topics that they will be learning in the new session. “We also plan reading recovery programs through novels and educational comics," she says.

Not all parents have a work-from-home option yet, so the tasks at Pathways have been created in such a way that children can accomplish them independently. A variety of choices and strategies are given, catering to the needs and working styles of the students, including multiple intelligence levels.

The programme has a combination of screen time, SEE (social, emotional and ethical) learning, mindfulness activity such as meditation and breathing exercises, online quizzes, games through online learning platform, and a morning check-in by the teacher, who sets the tone for the day. There is a connect time with the parents as well, with counsellors and teachers reaching out to them via telephone or Skype during the day.

Handy tips for parents

Psychologists around the world advise parents to talk to children about the fears around Covid-19 and give correct, though filtered, information rather than resort to outright denial. “Name it to tame it" is a tool often used by child psychologists, and it is linked to the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy practice of naming and identifying fears, thus reducing their fuzzy and overwhelming impact.

K. John Vijay Sagar, professor and head of child and adolescent psychiatry, Nimhans, Bengaluru, feels that in India, the emotional impact of the health emergency will be visible on children in the coming days. “Teenagers, young adults and those above 11 have a good understanding of issues. But they may also have a lot of questions. For that age group, it’s important to have an informal discussion. Don’t create a dramatic build-up to the chat but keep the tone conversational," he says.

Parents also need to keep in mind the temperament of the child—some are naturally communicative. In that case, it’s important to take on the role of a listener. Other children open up only when prodded, so parents have to be persistent but calm. “The younger children, below 10, may end up getting confused with so much information. The suddenness with which things are happening —schools, swimming pools and malls shutting down—may leave them worried or fearful. It is important for adults to avoid panicking at home," he says.

Thirteen-year-old Anisha Subramaniam, a class VII student in Bengaluru, follows news from around the world on Instagram and admits to feeling worried. “The news from Italy is scary. We went there on holiday last year and now I am seeing pictures of the same places absolutely empty," she says. Her parents say they are planning to cut off social media access for her and for once, Subramaniam is grateful. “I would rather find out from my parents what’s going on. I know that social media is often full of fake news and I don’t want to read anything that will trigger me. I have to trust my parents to be honest with me and my brother, and I know that they will be. Both of them are also working from home, and at times it feels almost like a family vacation."

It is important to maintain a semblance of a normal routine at home. If a parent has started working from home, that change in routine should be explained to the child as well. “Use the right terminology," says Sagar. “Don’t create a catastrophic situation by saying things like, ‘don’t step out at all’, ‘close all doors immediately’. Follow advisories by WHO and the government, rather than fake news like eat garlic, so on and so forth," he says.

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