How wearing a mask at school can impact a child’s development

TORONTO — The mandating of face mask use in schools is raising concerns that the coverings may interfere with children’s development, including speech, language and social interactions.

However, experts say children have unique learning capabilities and will find other ways to communicate.

While the masks may hide some of the ways children process and use information, Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca that children are “very, very smart” and can use different methods when interpreting social cues.

“Kids are very adaptive to any new environment that somehow hinders a certain way of communication. They will find another way to get the same information. They are much better in adapting to change than we adults because they have not formed many habits yet,” Lee said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“Kids are very malleable,” he added.

However, Lee acknowledged that face masks may pose a few potential problems for children in interacting with their classmates and teachers.

The main issue Lee said is that children might have difficulty recognizing people, since they often focus on individual facial features. As well, the masks may create issues for children in recognizing emotions and social interaction.

“We use our face, particularly the majority of the facial musculature, to actually convey emotions,” Lee said. “We do a lot of things to convey emotions including how our muscles move and through our cheeks as well as our lips. But now you have them covered up with the mask.”

While adults may not be aware of this shift, Lee said children who are still developing social skills will have trouble recognizing certain emotions without being able to see one’s full face.

Another problem that children may encounter with wearing face masks is language comprehension, Lee said. He explained that speech communication does not only happen through sound and that young children actually collect speech information that is communicated visually.

“When children try to understand someone, they actually pay attention to their eyes, their nose, their mouth and how their lips move. They then use that information to comprehend what that person is talking about,” Lee said.

“Without seeing one’s face, it can be difficult for them to understand what that person is saying.”

Despite the possible challenges, Lee said parents should not worry about their child’s development. He said the “long-term impact is minimal” because children are still in the early stages of learning and can easily adjust to new environments.

However, Caron Irwin, a Toronto-based child development and parenting specialist, said taking note of these new changes will “definitely take some adjusting and getting used to” for children.

She told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday that there are certain techniques parents and teachers can use to “help maintain optimal development” for children even while wearing a mask.

“I think if parents spend time wearing masks themselves and engaging with their children while they have their masks on, that’s going to be an experience that they’re going to have that will help them develop that comfort level and that familiarity which will help them and translate that into school,” Irwin said in a telephone interview.

Irwin suggests parents wear masks around their children such as while reading bedtime stories so the kids can better recognize emotions verbally than through facial expressions. She added that parents may have to speak more slowly while their facial features are covered.

“That’s going to take a listening skill that kids might not have yet, especially young children. So spending time with your kids wearing your face mask as a parent and… really exposing them to that at home is going to then help teachers in the learning environment,” she said.

Irwin explained that teachers may also have to introduce new resources to the classroom to ensure social and cognitive development is not disrupted by face masks. She said this may include picture charts or feeling cards that children can access to help communicate and follow directions “that rely on something other than just regular conversation.”

By giving children a supportive environment both at home and at school, Irwin said children can be successful in finding different ways to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

“A lot of social development for young kids does come [from] watching and observing people’s social cues. That’s obviously not going to be as obvious right now, but I think that if we’re aware of that then we can put other tools in place to help kids still be able to communicate but in a way that’s new and not so reliant on watching people’s mouths,” she said.

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