How to Talk to Students About Scary Topics?

by | Mar 13, 2020 | Tips & Tricks

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

How should you talk to students about scary topics? Deaths, accidents, illness, and any number of things happen in the lives of our students on a daily basis. When big events happen, the impact can affect your entire classroom and school. 

A teacher in a group I belong to asked a question the other day that needs to be addressed. Her question was, “Should teachers talk to students about COVID-19.” My immediate response was “Yes, how can you not?”

However, as an educator, I also know that “How should we talk to students about scary topics?” is ultimately the question we should be asking.

With 1:1 computer devices, cell phones, television, and YouTube, students, even in elementary schools, have messages constantly at their disposal which leads to information overload, increased anxiety, and false information.

As teachers, we want to help our students, but learning how to do that appropriately is important.

Shannon Mount, PhD (ABD), LCSW, ACSW, and the School Counseling Services Coordinator at Scott County School District 2 in Indiana, said her number one piece of advice for educators is they should let parents take the lead on what they are comfortable telling their child.

However, Mount added, “But, as educators, we spend a great deal of time with students, so we want to also be in a supportive role. In that role, we want students to take the lead on asking questions, always consider what their developmental level of the information they can handle, and most of all be that calm, steady person that students can depend on in scary times.” 

Combatting disinformation

Learning what to believe and what is true is vital. Luckily, that same exposure to multiple resources that can cause increased anxiety and panic, also means there are good resources available for teachers and students when talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Center for Disease Control has practical guidelines for talking to children about Coronavirus: 

  • “Remain calm and reassuring.
  • Make yourself available to listen and to talk.
  • Avoid language that might blame others.
  • Provide information that is honest and accurate. (Give information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Talk to children about how some stories they see and hear may be based on rumors and inaccurate information.)
  • Teach children every day actions that can help spread germs.”

The CDC also suggests that educators keep information simple and to remind students that health and school officials are working to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Let students ask questions

One key element that most reputable sources agree on is that you should let children take the lead on their questions. It is important that students have the opportunity to have their questions answered because not talking about it can make them worry more. 

It is also better to answer their questions rather than you telling them things they may not be ready to hear.

Provide age appropriate answers

You want to provide factual, age appropriate responses.

The National Association of School Psychologists provides these guidelines for age appropriate explanations:

Early elementary-

Provide brief, simple information. Balance facts with reassurance that schools and homes are safe and adults will help keep them healthy and take care of them if they get sick. Show them simple steps people are taking to stop germs and to stay healthy. 

Upper elementary and early middle school-

Help these students separate reality and fact from rumor and fantasy. These students will be more vocal in asking questions about if they are safe and what will happen if COVID-19 reaches their school or community. Explain what school and community leaders are doing to prevent germs from spreading.

Upper middle school and high school students-

Provide honest and factually accurate information about the current status of COVID-19. Students this age can discuss the issue in an in-depth, adult-like fashion and need to be shown where they can find information. Knowledge can help them have a sense of control.

Common sense behaviors

There are also common sense things educators can do throughout the day.

Be careful what you say in the presence of students

With new information coming out daily, teachers have lots of questions too. Sometimes in our eagerness to discuss our own concerns about the pandemic and possible school closures with colleagues, we thoughtlessly do this in the presence of students. Not only does this increase the likelihood of rumors, it also increases students’ anxiety. So, make sure you are not around students for these discussions.

Avoid gossiping about things you have read

Unfortunately, some adults are as guilty of sharing false memes and news stories as students. Before you discuss the pandemic with students, make sure you know the actual facts. Go to sources like the CDC, WHO, and the American  Academy of Pediatrics for information.

If you don’t know the answer to something students ask, find out before you give an answer or look it up with them if it is age-appropriate. Show them how to get reliable information.

Remain calm

Students get their cue on how to act from you. If you are an alarmist, they will be too. Do not discuss your own anxiety with your students. They have enough fear and uncertainty without you adding to it.

Students of all ages need to know what is being done to keep them safe. They need to be reassured that there are people who are making plans with their best interests in mind. Be extra careful in how you present this, and do not let your own fears or biases influence your responses or reactions to school announcements or decisions.

Be empathetic, listen, and do not trivialize students’ emotions

With events being cancelled and schools closing there are a lot of unknowns as schools and government agencies try to figure out how to respond to new developments. When governors request wide-spread action there is not much time to figure things out.

As a teacher, you are worried about planning lessons if school is closed, you have questions and are frustrated. So are students. They are worried about sports, prom, competitions, graduation and any number of events important to them being cancelled. To you it might just be a sporting event, but to them it may be something they have worked for their entire time in school, or their last chance to play in that sport.

The anxiety and fear is real to them, just as it is to you. Listen to them and help them process their feelings. 

Contact professionals for help

If you are not sure how to handle discussions with your students or how to answer questions, contact the professionals in your building. Talk to your school counselors and school nurse to get their input on what is best for your grade level. You may not have faced this situation before, but together you can learn how to talk to your students about scary topics and to help them through.

Helpful resources for you:

NASP: Talking to children about COVID-19

Child Mind Institute: Talking to kids about the Coronavirus

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration: Coping With Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks



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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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