How to Talk to Kids About Vaccines (and Covid-19)

Now more than ever, there’s been a lot of talk about disease and vaccination. There have probably been a lot of conversations with children who want to understand more about what a ‘pandemic’ is, and what the Covid-19 is and what it means. But as we try to tackle the spread of the virus with global vaccinations, helping students understand how vaccines work and why they’re important is essential. Not only for their overall understanding, but to help mitigate the spread of misinformation around vaccination. 
This blog will break down ways for you to tackle the conversations around vaccination with your class- but please note that it’s best suited to a follow-up lesson around germ theory. 

Start with myth-busting

We’re in an era that has been called the ‘post truth’ age by some academics which, as scientists, is concerning. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion is crucial for all of us – especially children – and yet there are many high profile examples of influential adults spreading misinformation. This can make it much harder to get children to understand the importance of identifying trustworthy, reliable sources of information. However, one thing that should be universally acknowledged, is that we have to trust the experts. 
‘Experts’ should be defined as people with extensive, relevant knowledge who are qualified to speak on a topic. That could be a scientist, someone with a PhD, or someone who has significant lived experience in a particular area. However, an important distinction to make is that just because someone is an authority figure does not automatically mean they are experts, qualified to make a judgement on something, because authority and power does not equate to expertise. A good example of this is former US President Donald Trump talking about using bleach as a way of treating Covid-19. Although he is an ‘authority figure’, he is not ‘an authority’ on treatment of Covid-19, because he is not an expert on Covid-19 or its treatment.

You can bring this conversation into the classroom…

1. Start by asking the class what they think they know about Covid-19. Ask them how they know these things. Does the information come from reliable sources? How can they fact check these? Write everything they say on the board, we’ll come back to this later.
2. Next, ask them what they know about the vaccine. Do they think it’s safe? If not, why not? Where have they heard that it might not be safe? Again, add these ideas to the board.
This is an incredibly important – but delicate- subject. The prevalence of mis and disinformation around vaccination, particularly online, means that it’s quite possible that their parents do not believe in vaccination, or have fallen victim to disinformation which they have passed onto their children. Nevertheless, it’s important to be clear on what the science tells us: and that is that vaccines are safe, and necessary to protecting ourselves and others.
3. Explain how vaccines work
Start by showing them this good explainer video: 

  • Vaccines don’t make you better- they help to prevent you from getting sick in the first place. 
  • Vaccines are effectively giving your body a ‘practice run’ at what it would be like if it came into contact with the germs that could make you sick. They do this by injecting you with a weakened version of the real germs – which can’t make you sick, but allows your body to create antibodies, ready to tackle the real germs should you come into contact with it in future. This video does a good job of explaining quickly how antibodies work: 
  • Vaccines work a bit like giving your immune system a heads up that there is something nasty going around, which they need to watch out for in the future. Your body does this by creating antibodies specifically for the virus you’re being vaccinated against – because it can’t tell the difference between the harmless germ cells in the vaccine, and the harmful germ cells which are the real thing. They both trigger the same auto-immune response.

4. Next, open up the opportunity for your students to ask questions. Here are some common questions, and some answers to help you to prepare:

Common questions:

  • So why do you sometimes need a second jab for the same disease? Well, this is because after a while, your body might stop thinking the virus is a big threat, and stop producing as many antibodies as before. This means there’s a chance your body won’t be as well prepared for the real germs, should you come into contact with them. The second jab lets your body know that there is a persistent threat of getting sick – and that it should stay prepared for coming into contact with those germs. 
  • Does that mean it’s impossible to get sick once you have a vaccine? No, it doesn’t. It is still possible to get sick with a disease, even if you’ve been vaccinated against it. It just makes it a lot less likely to happen. 
  • I don’t think it would be that bad if I got sick, so why should I bother getting vaccinated? No one can be sure how their body will react to a disease, everyone is different. However, the risks of getting sick are much, much less than any risk posed by getting a vaccine. However, even if you’re not worried about your own health, you should also consider public health. In the case of Covid-19, you can have the virus and be asymptomatic (i.e. not know you’ve got it), which means you could be passing it on to other people without realising it. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely you are to become infected, and the less likely you are to pass the virus on to others.
  • What’s an ‘R’ number? The R number is a mathematical term to describe the ‘reproduction’ number of something. In the case of disease, it’s used to describe the number of secondary infections for every person who gets infected. For instance, if the R number is 2, it means for every person who gets infected, on average another 2 people will be infected as a result. The lower the R number, the lower the spread of the virus.
  • Are vaccines completely risk-free? Nothing is ever 100% risk-free. However, vaccines have to go through extremely rigorous testing and trials before they are rolled out to the public. Every kind of vaccine, medication or medical procedure carries some risk. But the experts are confident that the benefits significantly outweigh the risks. 
  • I’ve heard the Covid vaccine was rushed, so it can’t be trusted. Is that true? No. All vaccines have to undergo the same process before they are rolled out to the public. However, the reason the Covid vaccine was able to be produced so quickly, was because there were none of the delays which usually form a standard part of vaccine creation. There was ample funding, global support, and international sharing of new developments in the interest of global health. Also, researchers weren’t ‘starting from scratch’ with vaccine research for Covid-19. Covid-19 is part of the Coronavirus family, which was not new to the medical world (i.e. SARS). This means there was already work underway on creating vaccines for illnesses within this family of viruses. 

5. Now return to the myths around Covid-19 vaccines that may have appeared in your earlier conversations with your class. Go through these individually, and help them refine their critical thinking skills by deconstructing them as a class, one by one. 
Simply telling them something isn’t true is less likely to be believed, especially if it contradicts what they may have heard elsewhere. If you come across any challenges to the information you’re giving them, invite them to look up sources of information to support their argument. When they present their source, use this as an opportunity to identify when a source is unreliable. In a time where mid/disinformation is so prevalent and believable, this is arguably one of the most important skills we can be imparting on our children. You can teach your students to follow this simple three-step process:
A) Who is the author? 
Are they an expert? Do they have a proven track record of sharing accurate information, or are they regularly challenged by other reliable sources and experts? Use this to make an informed judgement as to how reliable they are.
B) What is the source? 
Most sources of mis/disinformation are on websites that look like news sites, but are not. Invite students to look up who runs the site, and how it’s funded. Is it funded by people who may have an agenda, or motivation to persuade people to a certain way of thinking? Do they have a proven track record of journalistic integrity? There’s a directory of sources which have been proven to share misinformation; checking the name of the website against this list could be a good place to start: 
C) Is this information or news supported by other reliable sources? 
If your source’s information is going against that of other credible sources, then it’s important to employ critical thinking and try and consider which source is likely to be correct. Could there be an ulterior motive underpinning why the contradicting source is sharing that information? For instance, most online news sources rely on clicks and views to their website to generate revenue from advertising. Being controversial can generate income. 
This is an unprecedented time for us all, and we are having to have unprecedented conversations with our children as a result. However, by being transparent with our children, and equipping them with the skills they need to make informed decisions about who to trust when it comes to their health, we can help raise the next generation of well informed global citizens.