Helping to reduce pandemic fatigue and fear in children
August 23, 2021
Pandemic fatigue refers to the mental exhaustion that comes from the sustained increase of stress and uncertainty during the global pandemic of COVID-19. 1 The devastating impact of the coronavirus threatens our sense of control and safety causing concern, fear, and excessive worry.
Increasingly, the issues surrounding COVID-19 and other life-threatening local, national, and global events are exposing children to adult issues they are developmentally ill-prepared to fully understand. While younger children depend mainly on parents and teachers to interpret information about adverse or life-threatening events, older children may gain information from a range of sources that are not always reliable.
Children often believe what peers say and can view events using black-and-white thinking with the inevitable tendency to see things in extremes, which can lead to worry and even anxiety.
What teachers and parents can do?
The following suggestions are taken from the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who fear life-threatening events (new edition). Several of our past blogs also suggest practical strategies. See Supporting parents with at-home learning and Impact of COVID-19 and preparing for term 4.
1. Use the language of hope and reassurance
- Reassure the child, with honesty, that as difficult and disturbing the situation appears, our related feelings can be managed.
- Promote optimism by discussing ways health officers, school and other community and world leaders are working to keep us safe. Explain how global, national, state and territory and local strategies are helping to reduce the impact of the virus, and reassure children that the crisis will eventually ease and end.
2. Provide tools so they can help themselves
- Teach mindfulness activities and relaxation techniques to all children to ‘anchor’ them in the present moment and to help them to manage their feelings. For example, teach Window Breathing. Simply take a 4-second-deep breath in, followed by a 4-second-deep breath out and repeat, while your eyes follow around the four sides of a window.
3. Build a sense of safety and connection
- While class discussion is always a worthy endeavour, small group teacher-led chats allow the child to listen and share items of interest, including thoughts or worries, in the safety of a small peer group in the classroom or via video-conference.
After school hours, parents might provide a supervised space to allow their child to chat for a set time to a friend, classmate or relative before or just after dinner via a video-chat tool and perhaps play a suitable online game together.
4. Provide a sense of control and engagement
- Encourage children to go outdoors, to move about, exercise and spend time engaging with the natural environment. Create learning activities that make use of time outdoors. Observation of numbers and types of birds at intervals throughout a day or week, photos of changing cloud formations, sketching of plants, flowers, and trees, increasing stamina with physical activities such as number of star jumps, improving bouncing, dribbling or goal throwing skills with basketballs, keeping a balloon, ball or rolled up socks in the air.
5. Communicate with parents and their family
- Maintain weekly school assembly, newsletters and emails to support clear communication and connectedness with children, parents and the school community. During periods of remote learning or school closure the school assembly might be delivered by video.
Sharing concerns and seeking further assistance
It is a general principle that if you notice something worrying about a child, your observations or concerns should be conveyed to the parents/carers. Equally, parents/carers should share information about any worrying emotional responses with the teacher, so they are better placed to assist in supporting the child’s wellbeing and can make reasonable adjustments to support learning.
Children’s emotional responses will vary in nature and severity. Common emotions following and during a significant adverse event include fear, confusion, anger, loneliness, and sadness.
If the child shows ongoing distress or reactions such as withdrawal, acting out in class, the schoolyard or home, aggression, obsession with disturbing or violent thoughts or persistent sleep problems, refer the child via their parents to their GP or a psychologist. For more information, practical classroom strategies and guidance about when to seek further assistance see the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who fear life-threatening events (new edition).
For children and parents experiencing anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common issues encountered by Australian school psychologists in their work with students and their families. Resources to assist anxious students and parents in the Members Area of the Psych4Schools website offers many resources to assist teachers, other school professionals and parents to prevent or reduce anxiety in children and to work with and support children who are anxious. Since anxiety may also be an issue for other family members, there are also resources to support parents. These resources are available free to members.
Wellbeing tips for teachers and principals
Teachers experience the same uncertainty, fears, and stressors as other adults. This stress is compounded by moving between face-to-face and remote teaching, with many also juggling other care-giving responsibilities. It is vital for leadership teams and teachers to be proactive around care for selves and one another.
Kristen Douglas, Head of Headspace in Schools provides Tips for teachers and principals during lockdown regarding looking after your own health and wellbeing by reaching out to networks, taking micro-breaks, getting fresh air, and exercising. This 3-minute video which addresses Victorian teachers is applicable for all Australian teachers.
Most schools across Australia provide free confidential Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). For confidential referral to an EAP psychologist speak to a member of the principal class in your school. The Australian Psychological Society also has the Find a Psychologist service.
For immediate help or information: Call Lifeline 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au
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Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer
 Gellner, C (2021) Reducing Pandemic Fatigue in Your Kids (Feb 22, 2021) University of Utah, Health. https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=1_4srpajqs