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Masks and Social and Emotional Development

By: Angela Tomlin, PhD, HSPP, IMH-E, professor of clinical pediatrics

Wearing masks is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19. Because children use facial expressions to understand and make decisions about how to act, especially in new situations and with new people, there have been concerns that masking of faces reduces children’s access to some of this important information. As children transition back to school and childcare settings, many parents wonder if their young child’s social and emotional development will be affected if they can’t see a caregiver’s full face. This question is relevant now, and likely to stay relevant in the future as additional surges are expected.

First, parents should recognize that their baby or young child has time every day with their most important caregivers at home that do not involve a mask—you! In those daily interactions there will be plenty of time for exposure to a full face and all the emotions that we can show. Baby games, like peek-a-boo, or others in a family tradition, can help children with emotion recognition. For more ideas about activities to do related to supporting social and emotional awareness, consider Becky Bailey’s I Love You Rituals.

Parents can help by preparing their children for seeing and wearing masks before they return to school or childcare. Explain that we are wearing masks, washing our hands, and taking a break from being close to others right now to keep everyone healthy and safe. Show your child your masks and let them handle them. If your child is older than 2 years, they should have their own mask. Encourage the child to look in a mirror while wearing a mask to see how different expressions appear. Make a game of covering your mouth, making a face, and guessing what expression is under the cover.

High quality childcare and preschool settings put a strong emphasis on social and emotional learning including how to manage emotions and behavior, demonstrate empathy, and build positive relationships. Providers understand that it is essential to be thoughtful about promoting social and emotional learning while wearing masks. Use of a clear mask or posting photos of staff and children without masks can help. When full masks are needed, providers can emphasize the expression of their eyes and eyebrows to help children gain clues about emotions. For example, when smiling, make sure your smile “reaches your eyes” and specifically alert children to look at your eyes. Using gestures, such as a thumbs up or shoulder shrug, can also help children identify feelings. Look for ways to incorporate other visuals. For example, when reading books, point out the eyes and mouths in the pictures to underline that both connect to emotions. Make use of pretend play opportunities, such as providing masks for stuffed animals, dolls or puppets in the center’s play areas.

During this pandemic time, all of us have had to learn and do new things. Being flexible and forgiving can help us weather this hard time together and safely.

For more ideas and suggestions about supporting young children’s emotional development during the pandemic, please see:

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Ashley Dummer

Ashley Dummer is a Communications Specialist in the Department of Pediatrics. She has worked in Pediatrics since graduating with her degree from Indiana University.