We live in an unprecedented time. Information and research on mask-wearing and its impact on child development are limited. To be frank: there is almost none. As new information trickles in, parents and adults working with children have to make the best decision based on the information at hand at the time, even if we wish we had more information to better guide us.
Returning to daycare or school for our kids, to in-person work for some of us and, to more frequent community-based activities for most of us means that we are going to wear facemasks more often. Parents, educators, and teachers have lots of questions about the impact of wearing a facemask on speech and language development in children, especially young children.
There are ways to make it easier for our children to manage this new transition. The First Words team has been advocating for best practices around the use of facemasks when communicating with young children. Today, we are sharing best practices as well as sharing wonderful concrete suggestions from the Hanen Center (find the link to access the complete article below).
WHAT EXACTLY DO WE KNOW?
The logistics – We know we need to wear a facemask. We learned that wearing a mask won’t protect you from others but will protect others from you. We know to wear our masks on our face… and not under our nose, our chin, or hanging from an ear. Once it is on, we should leave it alone. And then, we have to make our kids also understand and adhere to those standards.
Communication development is a critical period, every moment counts – Babies and toddlers who are learning how to use communication will especially be impacted by being in contact with adults wearing masks. Especially at daycare. But this is also true for preschoolers; they are still learning so much about communication at their age. At home and daycare, strong communication skills will develop if we have conversations with children every day in daily routines and when we are engaged with children.
Facemasks may make it more difficult for children to understand and learn to communicate – This is also true for any one of us, children and adults. Information from the Hanen Centre tells us that wearing a mask will make it more difficult for a child to:
- read facial expressions: Facial expressions are very important to understand and interpret messages and situations from others.
- participate as often to social interactions: We all use facial expressions to show our interest in what the child is doing or saying. Facemasks may limit the excited facial expressions we use as adults to show children that we are interested in. This may limit engagement and turn-taking.
- understand speech: Facemasks may muffle speech a little. This can have an impact on learning speech sounds or subtle grammar features (like plurals, small grammatical words: is, to). It can also make it more difficult or less interesting for children to listen to us.
What are the best communication strategies when wearing a facemask?
To optimize any child’s communication development, wearing a mask with a transparent panel may be preferable to wearing a full opaque mask. These types of facemasks may especially be beneficial for adults who spend long periods with young children. The child may get additional cues from seeing the lips and tongue move when some speech sounds are produced or may be able to better understand a facial expression.
Here are simple strategies by the Hanen Centre to adopt when you are wearing a mask (any kind of facemask) and having conversations with children:
- Speak loudly and clearly to circumvent the muffling effect of a facemask
- Lower yourself to the child’s physical level even though you may be distanced
- Exaggerate your intonation in the absence of being able to use facial expressions to augment and clarify your message
- Exaggerate your gestures which will help get a child’s attention and provide visual cues in the absence of the child being able to fully see your facial expression
- Use gestures to encourage a child to take another turn in an interaction or conversation, e.g., hold out your arm, lean your body toward the child
- Aim to convey your message with your eyes as much as possible such as using wide eyes when surprised, disapproving eyes when attempting to discourage a behavior, smiling eyes when happy, sad eyes when upset
- Make explicit comments to draw children’s attention to your feelings, e.g., “Look how happy my eyes look”; “Look how surprised I am. My eyes are so wide!”
- Parents, play with masks with your children so they become more comfortable with seeing masks at childcare. Play at taking them on and off so children understand that the person wearing them is the same friendly person they have always known even if part of their face is hidden. Mask play can turn into a game where parents reveal a smile, frown, surprised look, etc. Parents can make comments such as, “Even though you couldn’t see my mouth, I was smiling and happy to see you!”
- Educators and teachers could consider wearing a badge with a photo of themselves to help the children connect socially.
For more information on masks:
- COVID-19: How Educators Can Build Interactions While Balancing Precautions with educators, parents, and our general community of partners. http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/COVID-19-Balance-Precautions-Build-Interactions.aspx © Hanen Early Language Program, [June 17, 2020]. Information from www.hanen.org has been used in this article and translated with permission from The Hanen Centre.
- Helping Children Understanding Emotions When Wearing Masks: https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/Wearing-Masks_Tipsheet.pdf
- French video: Stratégies de communication pendant la pandémie de l’Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP-aK5jUiqM
By Roxane Bélanger, M.O.A., SLP-C, Reg. CALSPO
Speech Language Pathologist,
First Words Preschool Speech and Language Program of Ottawa and Renfrew County
Recognizing speech and language problems early on is the best approach!
Check out our First Words Communication Checkup tool to know if your child is
meeting communication milestones. Refer online if necessary. For more information, visit
http://www.firstwords.ca or call Ottawa Public Health at (613) PARENTS.