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How the stress of COVID news affects how kids learn and think

By Kim Greene, MA

At a Glance

  • Being exposed to bad or stressful news all the time can affect learning.

  • It’s especially hard for kids who struggle with focus.

  • Most kids will process the news over time without any lasting impact.

Along with all the chaos it’s caused, the COVID crisis has exposed many kids to loss and trauma. Some have experienced it firsthand, especially during the most intense periods of the pandemic. But even kids who haven’t been directly affected have been hearing about job loss, illness, death, and other upsetting situations.

Getting a steady flow of stressful news and thoughts can be a lot for kids to handle. It can be extra hard for kids who have trouble processing information or managing emotions .

You may wonder how exposure to loss and trauma during COVID or any other time will impact how kids learn and think. Here are some answers to common questions. 

How does being exposed to stressful news impact learning?

Kids have heard about loss and trauma. They have a new vocabulary that is still on the news every day. Coronavirus, pandemic, quarantine, vaccine. You might even hear some preschoolers talk about “the virus.”

Most kids have also heard about needing to stay safe and to keep others safe. And if they know kids or families who’ve had a loss, these words have a new meaning.

“Kids are picking up on what they’re exposed to in the world. They’re talking about things like a ‘contagious virus,’” says David Kessler, a Chicago-based therapist who specializes in ADHD, learning disabilities, and trauma. “These are typical reactions.” 

Exposure to bad news can be very distracting for all kids. It’s especially hard when focus is already a challenge . Kids may get caught up in their own thoughts and talk a lot about what they’re hearing as they try to process it. 

Being distracted can get in the way of learning. Kids might zone out in class or not follow directions. They may have trouble remembering what they’ve learned. And they may take longer to complete their work. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they have a larger problem with attention. But as they try to make sense of all they’re being exposed to, it might seem that way.

How do kids process bad news?

When kids are exposed to bad news, they need time to process it. Most kids work to make sense of the information and then can move on.

It can be trickier for some kids who learn and think differently. They often have trouble:

  • Paying attention

  • Remembering information

  • Letting go of negative thoughts

  • Managing emotions

  • Processing information quickly

  • Understanding language

  • Seeing different solutions to problems

  • Coping with fear and anxiety

Struggling with skills like these can make it harder to process the news and put things in perspective.

Will the impact of stressful news be long-lasting?

Kids are resilient . There likely won’t be a long-lasting impact on kids who weren’t directly affected by loss and trauma, according to Kessler.

“Kids are exposed to a lot,” he says. “They manage to process a lot. We need to have more confidence in their resilience.”

What can help reduce the impact on kids?

You may not be able to keep the flow of information from having any short-term impact on kids. But there are ways to help keep it to a minimum.

  • Answer kids’ questions. Be honest, but don’t share more information than they can handle. 

  • Help them understand. Kids often need more information or context to make sense of what they’re hearing and seeing.

  • Acknowledge fears. Help kids talk about fears , and talk together about what would make things better. 

  • Give kids a sense of control. Talk about what you’re already doing to stay safe and ways you can help others. 

  • Stick to routines as much as possible. They give kids a sense of security and normalcy.

  • Limit the exposure. Do your best to turn off the news and stay off your phone around kids. And be sure to talk about other, less stressful topics, too.

  • Document experiences and feelings. Have kids keep a scrapbook, write stories, and take photos of how they got through the pandemic. 

Some kids need extra support to cope with stressful news. If a child is falling behind in school or behaving in a concerning way, families, teachers, and health care providers should connect about what they’re seeing, and what might help.

Key Takeaways

  • Some kids need extra support to cope with and process stressful news.

  • It’s important to answer kids’ questions about the pandemic.

  • Have confidence in kids’ resilience.

Related topics

COVID COVID Managing emotions Managing emotions Parenting Parenting Stress and anxiety Stress and anxiety

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