When Rebecca Wen's son came home from school crying two weeks ago because of a schoolyard bully, she had a knee-jerk reaction any parent can relate to.
"My gut instinct was, 'I'm going to find this kid and have a little chat with him,'" Wen said. "I was so upset."
"I couldn't believe he had to deal with it," Wen said. "He told me he felt embarrassed people thought he had a disease just because of the way he looked. It broke my heart to see the effect that it had on him."
A different approach
Instead of acting on outrage, Wen decided to turn the experience into a learning moment for her son. Together, they did some research on COVID-19 and talked through the facts surrounding the disease: It originated in Wuhan, China; it's transmitted through respiratory droplets, possibly on surfaces; and, most importantly, a person's ethnicity has nothing to do with contracting the disease, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it is Asians around the globe who continue to be the subject of reported harassment and attacks.
Once her son felt reassured nothing was wrong with him, Wen realized she needed to let the school know about the incident.
"We live in a town that is 27% Asian American, so I was thinking this is probably not the only time this is going to happen," Wen said. "I bet other Asian American children in our community are dealing with this, too."
Focusing on facts
Wen emailed her son's teacher explaining what happened and she agreed they could turn the situation into a powerful teaching moment for students.
"I felt like I had to address it with the entire class, because I didn't feel it was one student that was just saying it to him," said Stacie Oliveri, a fourth-grade teacher at Arthur M. Judd Elementary School in North Brunswick, New Jersey. "I needed to squash what I could squash."
Oliveri put a lesson together, careful not to make it about Wen's son so he didn't receive even more unwanted attention related to his ethnicity. In it, the teacher explained what viruses are, how vaccines work and that there isn't a vaccine for novel coronavirus, so it's important to stay informed on how to stop the spread. Then came the inevitable question.
"Someone asked, 'Aren't all Chinese people infected with this?' and another would say, 'They're infecting us and my dad said not to eat Chinese food,'" said Oliveri. "So I would come back to them and go, 'What did we just learn? That's not how this works. Anyways, I ate Chinese food last night and I feel fine.'"
Oliveri added that much of the children's confusion seems to come from misinformation trickling down from their parents at home.
"I can't tell you how many adults I scroll through on Facebook sharing xenophobic posts that are simply false," said Oliveri. "It's frustrating as an educator because people take the pandemonium they see online during this crisis and form opinions that their kids can latch on to."
Embracing a teachable moment
After answering all the children's questions, Oliveri said her class seemed to calm down and had information they could take away with them. She encouraged her students to go out and share what they learned with others.
Dr. Stephanie Samar, a clinical psychologist within the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, said Wen and Oliveri's response seemed to make the most of the bullying incident.
"I love how they handled the situation," said Samar. "That was exactly what we recommend. They educated the whole group, set expectations and had a learning conversation rather than just discipline around what happened."
Samar shared a few additional tips on how to talk to kids about xenophobia in light of the coronavirus pandemic:
1. Create a dialogue with your child.
2. Take kids' concerns seriously.
3. Have an immediate response following a xenophobic incident so kids quickly recognize inappropriate behavior.
- 1March 24, 2020
Wen explained her family wants to move past the incident and her son is currently focused on adjusting to virtual instruction, since the school has been closed for in-person instruction since March 13. She added her son received an in-person apology from his classroom bully once the incident was resolved.
"As we are a transracial family through adoption," Wen said, "the discussion of race and justice is always ongoing in our home, and this has been a learning experience for us all."