As the Corona virus pandemic continues in our community and nation-wide, we are faced with the need to establish new habits and routines to return to familiar activities. Children thrive on consistency and routine, so changes and transitions can be difficult.  As facilities and schools closed last spring, you may have found that the transition from daycare or preschool to home was a challenge.  We are all anticipating that the transition from summer to the school year, with changes and uncertainties, will be a bumpy road at best.

Countless articles, news stories, and blog posts grasp tightly to the idea that children are adaptable and resilient and will manage the impact of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders better than we can ever imagine.  There is comforting truth to these claims, yet some children may have more difficulty adopting new daily routines, such as wearing a mask.  It is recommended that children age 2 years and older should wear a face-covering in public when social distancing is not possible. There are several considerations and strategies for parents and teachers to help children adopt the habit of wearing a face covering.

Size Matters

Last spring, we witnessed a wave of individuals and small businesses begin to produce, sell, and donate face coverings of all varieties.  It is important to note that not all sewing patterns are sized for child face sizes and shapes.  Even a mask that claims to be sized for a child, may have differences in the length of the ear loops or the width of the fabric from nose to chin. You may need to try a few options before you find a mask that covers your child’s nose and mouth completely, tucks under the chin, and stays in place, even when talking, without constant adjustment. Some masks come with adjustable ear loops or dongles that can tighten the ear loops for a better fit. Selecting a mask that ties at the crown of the head and at the nape of the neck allows for easier sizing and adjustment for a more perfect fit on smaller faces. Using masks that tie around the head instead of ones with ear loops may also be better for young children whose ears may not be large enough to support the loops over their ears.

Not All Masks are Create Equal

Our face, ears, and mouth are the most sensitive parts of our body.  Masks and face coverings are made from a variety of fabrics and, as we know from our discussion about size, can range from tight to loose.  Many children have difficulty tolerating different touch sensations that come from fabric textures, light touch, or deep pressure on their skin. If your child has particular clothing preferences, apply these ideas to their face covering as well.  Try different fabrics; microfiber, fleece, satin, cotton, and polyester all have different breathability, temperature regulation, and abrasiveness that your child may like or dislike. Elastic or fabric ear loops may be irritating.  There are several lanyards and other adaptations that can be made to keep the ears free from pressure and discomfort.

Giving young children choices helps to reduce power struggles.  Allowing your child to select a face covering with exciting color, design, or favorite character can have them excited to wear it to show it off to friends and teachers! 

Practice Makes Perfect

We can learn a lot from professional child life specialists.  These certified professionals support children and families in medical settings to process and cope with the stress of illness and stay positive during medical procedures, surgeries, or long-term treatments.  CLS professionals approach each child in a developmentally appropriate way to help children understand, prepare for, and cope with new and potentially scary experiences, often through play.  As parents, we can implement some of these play-based strategies to normalize mask wearing for our children.

  • Model by wearing our own mask or face covering.
  • Practice putting masks on dolls and stuffed animals.
  • Use imaginary play to practice going to the doctor’s office, school, or a grocery store while wearing a mask.
  • Assign your child a mask-related chore or leadership role:
    • The “mask monitor” can make sure all family members have their mask when leaving the house
    • The “mask cleaner” can collect all the masks and toss them in the washing machine
    • The “mask designer” can pick the mask option for a parent or sibling for the day
  • Look to the Association of Child Life Professionals for coloring books, activities, and other resources to help children cope.

Children that are starting to get dressed and undressed by themselves are likely ready to be able to put their own face covering on and off. Practice independence in taking the mask off and putting it on at home. It may be easier to break down the steps by teaching your child to loop one ear first then the other instead of trying to loop it on both ears at the same time. If you are using a face covering that ties, you may have to pre-tie the strings and have her practice slipping the mask over her head and adjusting on her head and neck.

It is important to practice wearing a face covering a little at a time before expecting your child to wear it out in the community or at school.  Pick a few short activities at home and require mask-wearing (a board game, story time, the length of one cartoon) and challenge your child to wear it for the whole time.  You can also add reward (sticker, high five, preferred snack) for a period of successful mask-wearing. Then, slowly increase the amount of time your child will tolerate it. It may be helpful to keep your child’s hands busy and mind distracted with a craft or cooking activity in the early stages of mask practice.

Be Positive!

This is a stressful time for everyone and it is easy for us to feel panicked and frustrated when our child is refusing to wear a face-covering that is necessary for us to get out of the car and get to an appointment, finish errands, or complete the school drop off that will allow us to get to work. It is important to explain the good things that come from wearing a face-covering. If we threaten about what with happen if they do not wear it, such as “you may get sick”, “you will have to go to the doctor”, or “you may get someone else sick”, we are creating more stress and fear. For long-term mask-wearing success, here are some phrases that emphasize the importance of wearing a face-covering using positive language:

  • “Wearing a mask keeps us safe and keeps everyone around us safe”
  • “Wearing a mask can help us keep our germs from spreading to other people”
  • “You have the power to keep yourself and your friends safe from germs”

Wearing a mask or face covering can help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but getting young children to wear a face-covering may be a challenge for some. Through modeling, play, and positive language, we can help children to follow our lead.  When we normalize mask wearing, we may even discover that our children adjust to it easier than adults.  It just takes a little patience and practice.