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Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive.

Education Opinion

How to Talk to Students About the Coronavirus Without Scaring Them

By Angela Duckworth — May 27, 2020 1 min read

How should I talk about the pandemic with students? Are there words I should avoid so I don’t scare kids?

I have two suggestions. First, be straightforward.

As a model, consider how forthright Dr. Anthony Fauci has been when explaining what’s going on right now. This doesn’t mean false certainty. Nobody knows for certain what the future holds. But it does mean being clear about what is known and, in addition, owning up to the fact that so many important questions remain unanswered for the time being.

Second, use language your students can understand.

I recently discovered a terrific tip sheet on how to talk to children and teens about the coronavirus published by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at Uniformed Services University.

What I especially appreciate are specific examples of what you might say, organized by age group.

For instance, if you’re teaching very young children, you might say: “If Maria has the germ and coughs on Sebastian, then Sebastian could get the germ. Then, Sebastian could spread the germ to his family and friends by sneezing near them.”

Elementary school students may be ready for: “Because coronavirus is caused by a new germ, scientists don’t have a medication to treat it yet, but they are working on it. This may take a long time—maybe several months or even a year.”

And middle and high school students can handle: “The precautions we are taking now, like staying away from friends or not going to parties, will help prevent the virus from spreading. Even if you don’t get sick from the virus, it’s possible that you could spread it to others in the community or in our family, like grandma.”

Honesty and age-appropriate vocabulary are good rules of thumb for communication under any circumstances, but they are especially helpful now, when students are dealing with so much emotion, confusion, and uncertainty.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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