We read and hear about the coronavirus almost every minute of every day.
As an educator, I read about how educational institutions are preparing for the virus in the US; some student abroad programs are being cancelled. Student enrollment going forward will change as some students will struggle to gain access to the US. The role and use of online learning will take on new meaning and new dimensions, even among those who were reticent. One nation closed schools for a month.
As an expert in trauma and its impact on students across the US educational pipeline, this virus and the threat of its spread has me worried as I reflect on students, teachers and families. And I know that prior trauma can be retriggered by new trauma. And the new trauma doesn’t have to be in our backyard. (Were I an economist, I’d be fretting about trade and the markets.)
By way of example in terms of what has me concerned, I want to focus on one word that keeps appearing, even as we are told not to panic. That critical word is “quarantine” and for children, assuming they understand the word exactly or even vaguely, the possible impact of a quarantine is frightening.
Imagine what children think when they are listening to news and watching the adults in their sphere. Are they worried they (the children) will get sick? Perhaps. And if we focus on the rate of fatal illness from the coronavirus, the worries go up. Are they worried about their parents or families or guardians or caregivers getting sick? Perhaps, especially if they listen to the information in fatalities and the fast spread of the coronavirus. Imagine how children will respond to the use of masks — on themselves or on their family members.
But, for children, it is my belief separation and isolation are even more troubling than an illness (apart from a death fear). A situation that keeps a parent or caregiver in some remote location and NOT in their usual home location is scary. Quarantine messages separation and risk.
Many children will struggle with the prospect of separation. If their parents or caregivers travel for their business or even go to an office that is a airplane trip, a bus ride or car ride or boat ride away, the children may worry that their family member will leave and not come home.
Imagine sending a child off to school and the child is worried that he or she may be quarantined at school. Even if this is not a real threat, imagined threats feel real.
What can we do? Shutting off all access to the media is unrealistic. Whether children are young or old, social media or simply listening to conversations others are having make the coronavirus a topic of concern. We also shouldn’t lie and say the virus isn’t coming to our house; such a statement could backfire badly. And we shouldn’t deny real stories children hear.
But, the adults in the room can message that the coronavirus threat, while serious, is one that we are working to solve as a nation and community. Parents and caregivers can message that preparations are being put in place to keep everyone safe. Parents and caregivers can message that they will not take risks; some might indicate that they will curb travel. Parents and caregivers can indicate that sometimes messages get exaggerated and that is like the game “Telephone” where what is originally said morphs into something very different.
Importantly, parents/caregivers should remind children that they can always reach out to them and ask questions and express fears. Adults can message that fear is understandable but can be handled and navigated. Hiding the issue, dismissing the issue or ignoring the issue (or feelings) aren’t solutions. Honest, calm and open communication is key.
Trauma has a myriad of symptoms; we need to be on the alert for the coronavirus situation triggering or retriggering trauma. And once we see these symptoms, we need to address them — not pretend they aren’t there. We can lower the autonomic nervous system responses to the coronavirus threat — and that will enable us to approach the threats in a more rational way.
Bottom line: adults need to be adults to help the children in our lives. A threat of a pandemic or an actual pandemic is traumatic. How we handle it can lessen, not exacerbate, the situation. This isn’t easy — for anyone. Silence or hiding the situation before us is unrealistic and unwise.
Recognizing the potential for a traumatic response in children is a critical first step. We need to start (not end) there.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.