School of Education

Helping Children Cope with Fears about COVID-19

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The College of Humanities recently hosted a public webinar series on the topic: Helping Children Cope with their Fears about COVID-19.

Chaired by Professor Deevia Bhana of UKZN, participants included academics Professor Dipane Hlalele of UKZN, Professor Jace Pillay of University of Johannesburg and Dr Damien Tomaselli of Transmedia. 

COVID-19 is here to stay for a long time — and so are our fears about it. But how do we help children cope with their fears? All children, of all ages, and in all countries are affected but existing socio-economic inequalities is exposed in this health crisis creating severe impact for many children.

The webinar was a small step in the direction of opening up a conversation about addressing the complexity of the problems in helping children cope with their fears about the disease. The main issues highlighted in the webinar focused on the crisis in learning, poverty, the significance of social institutions, including family, parents and teachers, and the need to address children’s safety, including their mental health well-being.

‘Children are active knowledge producers throughout the life course,’ said Bhana. ‘This means that facts about the disease should be raised with children in age-appropriate ways which are effective for their understanding of the virus. This has become more pronounced as schools re-open. Social distancing and a lack of awareness and knowledge may give rise to fears… of contagion, disease and stigma. We should be curious about what children have to say about their own fears in order to effectively respond’, said Deevia Bhana.

In his address, Dipane Hlalele explored ‘shifting learning spaces’ and concomitant expectations for children to cope and adapt to the ‘new normal’ without much orientation and support. ‘COVID-19 brought about a disruption in learning spaces and operations which children were familiar with. Children are expected to cope with the home as a learning space, parents/siblings/caregivers as stand-in teachers, and to navigate new ways of learning, including online learning platforms. The disruption requires homes to be both supportive and productive learning spaces,’ said Hlalele.

Jace Pillay focused on anxieties, fears and stress experienced by children as a result of the virus and placed special focus on the mental health experiences of children at different ages and stages of development and age-appropriate knowledge that could mitigate the impact of the disease on children’s lives.

‘What we do know is that COVID-19 has drastically changed the lives of all people and children are no exception,’ said Pillay, who further emphasised how to identify, reassure, and listen to the fears, anxieties and stress experienced by children while providing some practical examples of what could be done to comfort children.

Damien Tomaselli focussed on helping children learn through visual storytelling enabled by new technologies. Based on an international partnership, he discussed a digital comic titled Don’t Panic, which is, he says, a must for any parent as it provides a simple easy explanation of the disease, the reason for the lockdown and how to cope with it, and general minformation about the virus.

The panel reinforced the 2020 United National guidelines to provide knowledge, support and action for improving and transforming how we think about children. The health crisis presents opportunities for us all to ensure that children’s rights and safety are protected.

‘We have a shared responsibility to address children’s fears and this requires a multipronged approach that reinforces children, irrespective of age, as rights holders who think, know and feel. Adults, parents, teachers and communities are key to realising this obligation,’ said Deevia Bhana.

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