Just when we thought it was safe to relax a little, the Omicron variant has swooped in and put pandemic debates in the spotlight again. Who should mask, and when, and where? Should children attend programs in person, or should we pivot back to remote learning? How do we continue to address socioemotional and spiritual needs? Will life ever get back to normal?
Nearly two years of COVID-19 uncertainty have left organizations and the children they serve reeling. The trauma experienced to some degree by everyone has made a mark that can’t be erased or ignored. As you hunker down once again to decide how you will respond to the latest news and statistics, consider these guiding questions:
How will specific lessons be received by children who have suffered deep losses due to COVID-19? Think about the messages various lessons might send. A session celebrating how ‘we survived the pandemic’ ignores the pain of those grieving the death of a loved one. A focus exclusively on the heroism of essential workers downplays the very real stressors their families experience. A simple offering of thoughts and prayers overlooks the specific needs generated by family job losses, school closures, travel bans, and quarantines.
Instead, encourage children to name their losses and ongoing fears. Offer regular moments of silence to remember those who have died. Talk about signs of stress and practice stress-reducing spiritual practices (e.g. mindfulness, meditation, yoga) together. Create online chat and video conferencing spaces where children can gather and socialize when meeting in person is too risky. Develop family seminars on supporting one another through job stress or loss.
Are we asking children to opt in or opt out? One way that we often deal with stressful topics is to tell children they can opt out of an activity if they feel overwhelmed. However, children may feel ashamed to admit they can’t handle a topic. They may want to please adults by going along despite their misgivings. Or an alternative activity may be unattractive or boring because it’s an afterthought in our lesson planning. Children may feel like they don’t really have any choice but to participate.
Instead, plan two (or more) activities that offer different ways to explore pandemic issues. Provide one activity that focuses children’s attention on their own pandemic experiences, such as a guided meditation. Provide another activity that allows for more emotional distance, such as reading a story about someone else dealing with a crisis and analyzing their approach. Or offer an activity, such as creating a public service announcement, with multiple topics, some related to the pandemic and others focused on general wellbeing. Then let children opt in to the activity that appeals to them.
What do children say they need? Long-term pandemic living has left children (and adults) feeling frustrated and powerless. Ask them what they need to get through another day, week, or month of pandemic life. Use regular check-ins to stay up-to-date with their needs. And invite them to provide feedback on pandemic-related activities. Don’t just ask if they liked something. Ask how the activity made a difference in their coping with the pandemic. Then use their evaluations to develop more effective programs and lessons.