How can we help our children overcome the challenges of a masked society?
As a mum of two and having worked with children for more than 15 years, I recall many occasions in which I’ve used just a caring smile to comfort a child or a reassuring “you can do this!” facial expression to support my son or daughter in moments when they needed a boost of confidence – no words needed. Afterall, when it comes to communication and language development, a great deal of information is shared through visual cues, not just auditory ones.
As children grow, they learn how to ‘read’ facial expressions to support their social interactions and their understanding of the world. Consequently, they gradually improve their social skills as they develop language and the ability to communicate with others. Now, however, as a result of the use of face masks to stop the spread of Covid-19, these cues in our expressions are being disguised and the way children develop is being affected. So, what can we do to help minimize the impact of this new reality?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Make mask-free moments a special part of your routine
In addition to using facial expressions to understand others, young children use the mouths of faces to learn how to produce speech sounds. So, to support development, parents should spend daily one-to-one time with their child without a mask, making eye contact and encouraging children to mimic sounds and expressions. Having a busy day and struggling to find time to play? Then just give your child your undivided attention as you go about the daily routine of changing nappies, feeding, and bathing them.
2. (Over)use Body Language
If it’s already tricky for us, grown-ups, to understand each other effectively when our mouths are covered, can you imagine how this feels like for children who are still acquiring language? To make things easier for them, DO emphasize expressions, feelings and emotions by using your eyes, tone of voice, and lots of gestures! As your child grows, encourage him/her to find ways of communicating through their eyes and body. By doing this, we are teaching our children how to relay more on various different non-verbal cues.
3. Find creative ways of helping them recognise others
Studies show that young children focus on individual facial features to recognise and bond with others. Therefore, the fact that your child now tends to see most adults, like their teachers, just when they are wearing masks, may impact their ability to emotionally connect and socialise. As wearing masks is a must, the solution is not to stop using it but to find creative ways to help those children who might be struggling with emotional connection and social interaction. For example: do ensure that you have photos of family members and other important adults in your child’s life without a mask at home; have a video call – even with your neighbours! – so that your child gets to see their faces; or create your own personalised memory game with matching cards that include a photo of the same person wearing a mask and one of them without it.
4. Make them more comfortable with the ‘new normal’
As it appears that face masks are here to stay for a while, it is important for young children to feel at ease with this accessory. Giving your child plenty of opportunities to explore masks at home is a good way to start. How about putting masks on their teddies or playing with masks in front of a mirror together? Young children will also love playing peekaboo with mum or dad as they hide behind the mask and then remove it to reveal a funny face! While playing, encourage your child to focus on your eyes. Then try and change your facial expression to see if they can guess how you are feeling even when you have the mask on.
Most importantly, don’t forget that children tend to be much more resilient and adaptable than we think. With the right support, we can help our little ones adjust to this new reality and find new and creative ways to communicate and interact with others despite the challenges presented by this new norm.
JINS, Regent, The Greens