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Children’s COVID-19 questions, worries, and information needs: Insights from research with families

Authors: Amy Grack Nelson, Evelyn Christian Ronning, Marjorie Bequette, Choua Her

As the world struggles with the new normal of living, working and learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, families are seeking trusted and engaging sources of scientific information to help their children understand a wide range of pandemic-related topics in an effort to ease children’s fears and worries. This strong interest in kid-friendly COVID-19 resources is exemplified by the record number of downloads for the pandemic-focused episodes produced by American Public Media's Brains On! podcast, beginning in March 2020. Because of our existing relationship with Brains On!, we (researchers at the Science Museum of Minnesota) were able to tap into the high audience engagement with the coronavirus episodes. Our goal was to learn more about the role that not only podcast media, but the informal STEM education (ISE) field at large, can play in providing families with science-based information to help ease children’s worries during the pandemic, answer their pandemic-related questions, and support family conversations about the pandemic. We hope our research findings can inform the development of coronavirus-related ISE resources that are responsive to the information and education needs of families over the course of the pandemic.

Our first stage of research reveals important insights into the kinds of questions children are asking about the pandemic, the worries they have, and the types of support caregivers need in order to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with their children, as well as the science behind viruses and preventative health measures more broadly. Here we highlight a few topic areas that the ISE field can address in resources for children and their families.

  1. Discussing and navigating risk. As parts of society begin to reopen and a “new normal” of living during a pandemic sets in, caregivers want help discussing and navigating the risks related to safely re-entering society and interacting with people outside their households. Our data show that caregivers are clearly struggling with understanding and evaluating the risks associated with participating in various activities. They are looking for guidance about how their children can socialize safely and navigate the risks involved. Caregivers also need support explaining the reasoning behind the relative risks to their children, why preventative measures are important, and how their children can employ them to interact safely with others.
  2. Dealing with an uncertain future. We heard concerns from children and their caregivers that leaders and public health experts cannot say how long preventative measures will be in place or how long it will be before key activities, like school or socializing with friends and family, will be back to “normal” again, if ever. Some children even expressed a worry that life may never go back to “normal.” Underlying much of the uncertainty are questions about vaccine development and when a vaccine will be available, seen by many as key to returning to a normal routine. One way to help address children’s feelings of uncertainty is to provide historical context for what they are experiencing. Caregivers may know about historical examples of pandemics, or may have experienced other public health crises; however, most children have not. The data show that caregivers want help discussing comparisons with other, historical pandemics. Drawing on historical examples of how children and their families lived during pandemics and how they coped with changes can help address the uncertainties and worries that today’s children are feeling, giving them some hope for the future. (For example, see this episode.)
  3. Understanding the nature of science. During the pandemic, the public has heard more than usual about the messiness of the scientific process. Public health guidelines change as we learn more about the virus, and sometimes new information contradicts what scientists previously thought they knew about it. The revision of guidelines can cause people to feel like they don’t know what to believe or what guidance to follow. Caregivers want help discussing how and why scientific knowledge changes, a key aspect of the nature of science that the ISE field can help address.

These are just a few of the wide range of topics that children have questions about and caregivers want help discussing with their children. Visit our executive summary or full report for more ideas on how to support families’ pandemic-related information and educational needs. We also developed a resource guide with links to resources that may help caregivers and informal educators talk to children about the COVID-19 pandemic.

A note about our methods

We gathered data for the first stage of our research from Brains On! listeners and their families. We administered a survey in June 2020 to caregivers of children ages 5 to 12 who listened to at least one Brains On! coronavirus-related episode. We also analyzed children’s questions shared with Brains On! from February 1 to June 3, 2020. To analyze the data, we used many strategies to check our interpretations, since we as researchers were living through the pandemic also. Detailed descriptions of our data collection methods, sample, and analysis process can be found in the full report.

Our study took advantage of a large, pre-existing audience who were already seeking out coronavirus information from a particular informal STEM education resource (Brains On!). It is important to note that the survey sample tends to reflect the experiences of white-identifying, high-income, and highly educated families, which means that experiences and voices from populations that have been most affected by the pandemic in terms of economic and racial disparities are not adequately represented in our study. This is a major limitation of our research, and we hope that others will build on these findings and work to fill the gaps in our sample and knowledge.

 

Acknowledgments

This material is based on collaborative work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2029209, titled RAPID: Addressing Families’ Covid-19 Information and Education Needs Through Podcast Media. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

 
Posted by Aya Rothwell