Why teach children how to wear a mask?
While many children may have unique sensory needs, wearing a mask may feel different for them. While it may be a transition to have children wear a mask, masks may be needed at different locations where children may have to go to in the future (e.g. stores, restaurants, schools/childcare centers, doctor’s offices, etc.). It is important to prepare them now, just in case in the future a mask is needed in order to avoid other challenges when in the “real world” again. In a worst-case scenario, if your child had an accident & needed immediate medical attention at a hospital, you would want to make sure they are protected. Depending on your child’s cognitive ability, it may be helpful to explain to them the significance of wearing a mask that it helps keep everyone “safe”, so they understand the reason of why they need to wear it.
Where do you start to teach wearing a mask?
Children first need to become comfortable seeing others’ wearing a mask, so they understand that it is common for people to wear them. If your child has primarily been inside, they may associate with only medical professionals wearing a mask, which may lead to some stigmatization with masks. It is helpful to have you as a parent/caregiver show your child you wearing a mask, show them how to put it on & take it off & most importantly, letting them know that it is still “you” behind the mask. You can also practice modeling with having other family members wear masks, preferred toys (e.g. stuffed animals, etc.) wearing a mask, or showing them their favorite character (e.g. Doc McStuffins) wearing a mask. A social story/video can also be helpful to view with your child, to explain & show how masks are worn.
You also want your child to associate the mask in a positive way, mask=good! If there are mask options to choose from, perhaps your child can help choose the mask they are wearing, maybe it is their favorite color, has a cool design on it, etc. After practicing wearing a mask, provide your child something that they like-this could be giving them lots of extra attention (e.g. “I’m so proud of you!”, “Woo hoo!”, tickles, etc.), maybe a small piece of a preferred snack, access to a preferred activity, the options are endless! If possible, it could be something that they get ONLY after they practice wearing the mask, so they are motivated to continue trying to wear the mask.
Setting Clear Expectations
From the beginning, it is important that you set clear expectations of how long the mask will be worn for. It is better to start with a short amount of time (e.g. 3 seconds) that goes well, rather than having the time be too long (e.g. 5 minutes) & things not go as well. You should also inform the child of how long they are going to wear the mask for & initially count outloud as they are wearing the mask so they know when the time will end (e.g. “we’re going to wear a mask for 3 seconds, 1, 2, 3, all done!”). The adult practicing with the child should also wear their mask as the child is wearing a mask to continue modeling practice. As even for adults wearing a mask can be difficult, it is important to set a realistic expectation from the beginning. Perhaps this includes getting adjusted to having the mask cover their mouth first by holding it over their mouth rather than fully wearing a mask. The next step could include being able to move up to holding the mask over their mouth & nose before practicing wearing a mask over their ears/head. Once the child is consistent with meeting the current expectation, then you can slowly start to increase the duration the mask is worn for as well as how the mask is worn (e.g. holding it over face vs. wearing over ears/head). Wearing a mask should also be practiced first at home before wearing outside as you want to make sure that you practice in a familiar environment first that is comfortable for the child. Once the child has mastered wearing a mask at home, then you can practice by going on a walk outside, going inside a store (if comfortable), etc.
Teaching How to Put On & Take Off
It is important the child knows how to put on a mask as well as take it off, should they need to take a short break from wearing the mask to take a breath. When practicing putting on a mask with over the ears, the mask can initially be hung from one ear, while teaching the child to pull up the mask over the other ear & then adjusting the mask as needed to cover mouth & nose areas. With taking it off, you can teach the child how to pull the mask down when needed & also how to take the mask off, hopefully to prevent it from breaking.
While we are not sure how long masks may be needed, it can be helpful to practice wearing just in case masks stick around for longer than we initially expected. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to the ABA department & we will be happy to assist!
Marisa Goudy, M.S, BCBA – National Therapy Center