Helping youngsters understand Coronavirus

The following column appeared in slightly revised form in some APG of East Central Minnesota Newspapers during March, 2020.

Helping youngsters understand Coronavirus

Talking about washing hands and covering coughs isn’t nearly enough.  That’s a strong message for families from Governor Tim Walz and Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious disease specialist,  Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester.


Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, Rochester, Mn


When I asked the governor on March 12 what he suggests families say to their children about the new coronavirus, he stressed that the health basics are necessary but not sufficient.  He mentioned that he’s never had so much acceptance at home when stressing the importance of washing hands.   He continued:

“It’s important for young people and children to know that even in these contentious times, people are working together to deal with this.  I’m pleased by the bi-partisan support.  Tell kids that.  Let them know that the risk that they will get seriously ill is very slight. Reassure them that we are working together to keep them safe.”

Dr. Rajapakse had many insights and suggestions. She pointed out, first: “Kids definitely know something’s going on.  They’re talking on playgrounds and social media with their friends.  Parents should not minimize this.  It’s an important discussion. “

She recommended asking youngsters: “What have you heard? What questions do you have?  Then, if families don’t know the answer, there are excellent sources of information.” She pointed out: “Parents won’t have all the answers. This is an opportunity to model good behavior about looking things up on an accurate and reliable website. “

She urges adults to remind youngsters that a lot of misinformation is being shared on social media.  Dr. Rajapakse recommended several websites including the Center for Disease Control, Minnesota Department of Health, and World Health Organization. (Please see below for examples)

She also stressed that “conversations should be tailored to the age and development level of the youngster.   Every youngster needs be reassured that “This infection seems to result in mild symptoms – similar to the common cold and sore throat. – for most children and teens.”

Also, families need to tell children who will stay home with them if they do get sick.  This helps relieve anxieties.

Furthermore, the doctor explained that even though they might not get sick, youngsters can pass the disease on to others so washing frequently and coughing into your sleeve is important.

She also urged that families “Initiate this when you yourself are feeling calm.” in a calm mindset.  This outbreak has resulted in some bullying.  Children are very perceptive. If parents come across as panicked or very anxious, this can increase the child’s anxiety as well.  She urges adults to be very clear that having this has nothing to do with students race, religion, where they come from.   Kids sometimes have difficulty differentiating what they’re seeing on the news that’s happening in other countries and what’s happening here.

Some youngsters will be disappointed that spring break trips have been cancelled – She recommended explaining that people traveling has helped spread the disease.  So not traveling right now can helps slow the spread of the disease.

Finally she noted that children tolerate things better if they have some advance notice that some things might happen. So she suggests telling youngsters that schools might or might not close.

Recommended websites include one prepared by the Minnesota Department of Health. You can start with a short video from Jan Malcolm, commissioner of health.  For those whose first language is other than English, there are brief fact sheets in languages including Arabic, Chinese Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese. The fact sheets are found here:

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. also has suggestions on how to talk with youngsters and children about this disease.  Among their recommendations:

  • “Remain calm and reassuring…
  • Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety…
  • Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma
  • Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs.”

CDC recommendations are found here:

CDC also has ideas about how to “plan, prepare and respond to Coronavirus Disease” That’s here;

A national center focusing on students with disabilities also has prepared information that families and educators may find useful.

Children and teens need our help in understanding what the Coronavirus means to them. Fortunately, terrific resources are available to help young people understand what’s happening.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,