by Mariel Eve Berlin-Fischler
With school around the corner, we're all looking for the best way to keep our classrooms safe. This year, that means masks. Here's how to begin teaching a child to wear one with less stress, no fear, and fewer struggles!
1. Reframe for yourself and for all grownups in the child’s life:
While living in a pandemic is trying for an endless number of reasons, mask-wearing is most difficult for us adults because it is tied inextricably to COVID-19, the fear and uncertainty it has aroused in us, and the unpleasant and often traumatic changes our lives have undergone as a result. Like many of life’s discomforts, mask-wearing in and of itself is mostly hard for us grownups because change is hard. It helps to be realistic about our perspective when we recognize that for most of us adults, masks are more often a symbol of what we’ve lost than of the safety we’ve gained. This does not have to be the case for young children.
Preschool-aged children do not have as many strong memories of “before.” They will carry none of the above listed associations with masks, unless we choose to pass them along. Not only do children have a very strong read on authenticity, but modeling is half of any expectational battle, and our thoughts form our actions on an even more subconscious level than we realize. If you want your child to wear a mask easily, happily, and conscientiously, the best thing you can do for that child is to adjust your own mindset.
Some physical perspective: Humans are vastly adaptable and resilient creatures, which is exponentially true for the youngest among us. We cover our bodies every day with clothes of varying comfort levels, because this is a combination of what we expect for ourselves and what others expect of us. Just like masks. Some prefer to not wear hats, some prefer the open-toed experience to socks, and some prefer pants to skirts. However, the fact is that we’ve all worn at least one of these “additional” coverings when it’s proved necessary or when other motivational factors were at play. Around the world, some have already been choosing to wear face masks in public for decades now. Around the world, many choose to cover their faces for religious or cultural purposes. There are many reasons and uses we have for covering different parts of our bodies at certain times, and if we widen our context to take notice of those who have done so without the weight of traumatic change, we can notice that this is a perfectly comfortable way to live for those who allow themselves to get used to it. When do we breathe most easily? When we stop telling ourselves that it’s hard to breathe and we get lost in the flow of our days. Marathon runners and wind instrument musicians can tell us that pushing through resistance to breath only makes our lungs stronger and is, for the majority of individuals, an acquirable ability with practice.
Some mental perspective: Yes, wearing a mask is a change for a child entering school, but we need to be aware that for the child, this is just one of many shifts they will undergo as they integrate into a classroom. Most of us did not grow up wearing masks to school, so this may seem like one of the biggest changes from our point of view. It is not. Healthy separation from their grownups, working to make a room full of strangers into friends, and learning to navigate their own wants and needs within the structure of a classroom are all much more monumental types of change for children. If we acknowledge our perspective in order to put the change of mask-wearing in its proper place (instead of heightening its perceived challenge as one we ourselves haven’t faced in a school setting), it becomes much easier to look at masks as the small potatoes to the meat of the matter rather than the straw that might break the camel’s back. If a child is feeling this way, there is a strong chance they are receiving these messages from us, in either our words or our actions.
2. Some Tips to Assist in the Culture of Mask-Wearing:
· Frame mask-wearing with love, care, and enthusiasm. Wearing a mask, along with being something we must do, is something we get to do. Protecting our friends is a big “mitzvah,” a special rule that helps us stay happy and connected to one another. Wearing a mask keeps our friends safe and healthy, and when someone is wearing a mask, we know that they care about us. How special to have a way to show someone we care, using something that we wear!
· Explain the function of a mask. With information and a good reason, they are very likely to eventually facilitate their own masking to align with the explanation. When we talk, cough, and sneeze, extra germs come out of our mouth and nose. This is normal, and our bodies are used to our own germs. Our friends’ bodies are not used to our germs, so they can get sick from too many. Our mask’s job is to catch the extra germs so that friends won’t get sick. When we wear a mask over our mouth and nose, the mask is very good at its job.
· Make the expectations clear. Draw a firm and clear line in the sand surrounding where masks come off and under what circumstances. Attach these expectations to easily observable physical and visual cues, such as sitting in a chair during a meal, standing next to the trash can to use a tissue, etc. While children are getting used to these boundaries, they will need many reminders, but if the cues are easily observable and distinct, they will eventually be able to facilitate themselves. At the outset, make your reasoning as specific as possible. “You are sitting in your own chair, and it is lunch time. This is a good time to take off your mask so that you can eat and drink. You’ll put your mask back on before you get up.” “You’ve taken your tissue and you’re next to the trash can with good space from your friends. Now is a good time to take off your mask to use your tissue. After you throw it away, you’ll put your mask back on so you can go wash your hands.” For the youngest children at school, simply break down such explanations into one sentence at a time, provided at the relevant moment.
· If there is ever an exception, explain why. Inconsistencies are glaring to children, and even if they don’t say something to point it out, they’ll incorporate the inconsistency into their own behaviors. If someone has their mask off in a space or circumstance they "shouldn’t," explain why and let them know the best thing to do. A child has a nosebleed? “____ needed some help with her nose. She’s getting some tissues and will find her own space until she can put her mask back on.” A child needs a readjustment? “You’re right, ____’s mask is off because I’m fixing his ponytail and I needed to move the loops. If you can give your friend some space while I help him, he should be ready to play in a minute.” Remember that being a grownup is not an exception. Removing your own mask or wearing it incorrectly undermines the basis of what you’ve taught them about mask function, and they will draw their own conclusions.
· Actively remove negative associations the children could be building with their mask. Instead of “Is your mask making you uncomfortable?” try “Are you feeling uncomfortable?” Instead of, “Do you need some time without your mask?” try “Do you need some time to sit and breathe?” Remember that in most situations, the mask itself is not the problem at hand, it’s just the one we’re preconceived to spot.
· Actively create positive associations for the children to build with their mask. In the beginning of the year, seek out opportunities to build your own relationship with the child through the mask. Find moments of warmth with the mask— “I see you wearing your mask over your mouth AND your nose. That makes me feel so safe.” Find moments of encouragement with the mask— “You put on the loop all by yourself, your fingers are learning!” And find ways of integrating a child’s love language. Words? Praise their mask-wearing and the surrounding skills. Time? Sit with a child while they are putting their mask on, being patient, calm, and present. Touch? Smooth their hair or trace near the loops with your fingers when you’ve finished helping put on a mask. Acts of Service? Walk a child through using their pinching fingers, navigating the loops, and putting on the mask, assuring them that this is great practice for them to try, but that you are there to help whenever they need it. Help immediately at whatever point in the process it is developmentally necessary to do so, while praising what they’ve done on their own. Gifts? Attach a lot of love to providing the child with a clean mask when it’s time and remind them when they put on their masks that their grownups got these masks for them because they love them.
· Affirm their competence and stimulate their self-help skills. Always add a couple of minutes to the routine after mask-off times to account for getting masks back on and letting the children lead the process. Every time a child tries their best to put on their own mask is another time where they’ve made the choice to wear the mask on their own as opposed to having a choice made for them. Use masks as an example of their ability to learn and grow over time. As their fingers practice with the loops of their masks and grow stronger as they get bigger, they will be able to put on their own mask, so let them know that they have this to look forward to! Allow time to let the child mask up on their terms as long as is practical before they ask for help or before you let them know that they’ve done some great practicing and you’re going to help so they can join the next activity.
· As with discipline, try to use only positive redirection surrounding mask-wearing. “Your mask keeps your friends safest when you wear it like this.” “I see you’ve got one of the loops on already!” “Just pull your mask up over your nose, and we’ll be ready to get started.” “I see this mask is having trouble staying on, let’s figure out how to adjust it, there’s always a way to solve a problem.”
· Don’t put yourself on the lookout for sensory issues by means of mask-wearing. We are grownups who work with young children, so we are always on the lookout for developmental needs, but we need to check our very strong bias when scouting for this one. We ourselves have not spent much of our lives in masks, and we run the risk of depriving our children of the comfort of a norm for no better reason than that we do not view it as a norm. Avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the majority of kids, who are capable of adapting with great comfort at this age, by not waiting for them to be the exception to this rule. There are any number of reasons children can have trouble wearing masks, but the most common reasons will be the ones socially imposed or planted in their minds by those around them, rather than by the baseline needs of their own bodies. It is entirely possible that every one of your children, even the ones with atypical sensory manifestations, will be able to wear a mask, so continue to apply these tips with positivity and understanding until it becomes abundantly clear that a child is progressing differently from the rest of the class in obtaining mask comfort. Be sure that you’ve worked with the family to re-frame and align expectations before chalking a masking preference up to a sensory need.
· Avoid giving the kids “mask breaks.” Kids need all kinds of different breaks for all kinds of different reasons. If you think a child needs to reset, find a way to help them get one, the same way you would if they weren’t wearing a mask. Allocating time for “mask breaks” does little more than glorify the time they don’t need to wear one and plant the seed that masks are something it’s impossible to not have a break from. Kids will be more likely to ask for one out of boredom, intrigue, or as an ask for attention than anything else. The children have built-in mask breaks throughout the day, but they are called other things, like snack time and nap time. If you feel that a child needs a mask break for a substantial reason without any other underlying issues apart from the mask itself, find a way to remove the mask without blaming the mask for the trouble. “I think a sip of water might help you calm down, let’s go over to your cubby.” “Let’s go get a tissue, it might feel good to clean your nose.”
· Lead by example. Very few of these tips will have their desired effect if you are not modeling them all on yourself. Do what you need to do to reframe your own mask wearing, it will decrease your struggles with your children’s mask-wearing more than you can imagine.
3. Answering FAQs from children:
Q: “Well, my little brother doesn’t need to wear a mask.”
A: “You’ve grown and learned how to breathe deeply, even with a mask on your face. His lungs are still practicing taking deep breaths. When he gets older, you’ll be able to show him how to wear a mask like you when he goes to school!”
Q: “Can I have a different mask? This one’s dirty.” (When a mask isn’t dirty enough to warrant a change)
A: “I see what you’re talking about. That spot won’t come off now though, so it should be fine to wear.”
A: “I see, it looks like you need a tissue. Here’s one. Wipe your nose and your mask, and it will feel much better when you put it on.”
A: “You’re right, it’s not as clean as it was before. Masks are kind of like shirts. Some food spills, but the shirt is still good to wear. You’ll put on a clean one tomorrow!”
A: “I see. The problem is that we don’t have enough extra masks to change them all the time. Since we need to wear a mask here to keep our friends healthy, it’s probably better to wear this one now so that we’ll always have another when we need it most.”
A: “I see. The problem is that this kind of mask can’t go in the washing machine, and when we make a lot of extra trash, it’s hard to keep the earth clean. It really helps the trees and animals when we put masks like this one back on.”
Q: “My mask smells funny. I don’t like it.”
A: “Ah, that happens to me sometimes too. Noses don’t always like smells before they get used to them. After you wear your mask again for a few minutes, it won’t smell funny anymore.”
Q: “Can I take off my mask?” (Inside)
A: “What’s the problem? I’d like to help you solve it.”
A: “We’ll be having snack in ten minutes, that will be the perfect time to take it off. Are you hungry?”
A: “When we’re at school, it’s the safest thing for us all to keep our masks on. Let’s go find something to do, I don’t think about my mask when I’m busy with something interesting.”
Q: “Can I take off my mask?” (Outside)
A: “You’re going to be playing very close to your friends, so the safest thing is to keep it on. Would you like a sip of water before you go back to playing? It’s hot today.”
A: “You’re going to be playing very close to your friends, so the safest thing is to keep it on. The good news is that your face won’t get cold! Masks in the winter are really helpful.”
Q: “Why isn’t your mask over your nose?”
A: “That was a mistake! Thank you for reminding me. You’re right, this way helps my mask catch the germs much better.”
Comment with scenarios and questions! This is new terrain we are all navigating. Stay kind and help your schools keep their communities safe.