by Rebecca Brooks
AUK Education Policy Advisor

Children see and hear things, and children talk. In schools across the country, children will be sharing stories and rumours about the Coronavirus, picking up on adult anxiety, and, in some cases, carrying a growing anxiety of their own. 

For some children, especially those who have experienced loss or trauma, and those whose anxiety baseline levels are set high, concerns about the Coronavirus may erupt into anxiety-fuelled behaviour in school. 

What might anxiety look like in children? 

Physical signs – children may complain of headaches or stomach aches, appear restless, fidgety and distracted, or find their muscles tense up. 

Emotional signs – look out for children appearing particularly sensitive or crying a lot, becoming grumpy or angry without any obvious reason, or withdrawing and becoming less responsive. 

Behavioural signs – children sometimes ask a lot of questions because they are curious or excited, but it can also be a sign of anxiety; be aware of children appearing pre-occupied, having ‘meltdowns’, or exhibiting self-soothing or even self-harming behaviours. 

Parents or carers may also be aware that their child is showing signs of anxiety at home, even if this has not been evident in school. 

How can schools help to reduce anxiety? 

There are several things that schools can do to calm children generally, but be aware that children who are already highly anxious, or who are care-experienced or have special educational needs may need extra support. It is wise to discuss the school’s plans for supporting children with parents and carers in advance, so children can be prepared and supported at home as well as at school. 

  1. Be aware of children discussing the situation amongst themselves, and be prepared to step in to correct any misinformation. Rumours spread like wildfire among children, and they may not be able to sort the truth from the stories. If possible, find out what the children think they know, and then be prepared to correct their information if necessary.
  2. Be honest about what is happening. Brushing off and dismissing children’s fears does not reduce their anxiety. Ensure you present information in an age-appropriate way, but be honest about the essential facts. 

  3. Help to maximise children’s feelings of safety by explaining what the health service and the school is doing to protect them, and give them a sense of control by showing them what they can do to protect themselves. Reassure the children that the risk to them is currently low, but that they can protect themselves by washing their hands regularly, and that doctors and hospitals know what to do if someone becomes unwell. Take time to teach children good hand-washing technique. 

  4. Remain calm and give out information in a matter of fact way. Children need to see that the adults are calm and in control of the situation.  

Information about Coronavirus (COVID-19) for schools has been published by the Department for Education and Public Health England. It is available online here