Masks and Social-Emotional Development for Toddlers

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The pandemic continues to push the implementation of preventive measures to limit Coronavirus transmission. It has drastically affected interpersonal communications and socio-emotional norms.

This paradigm shift may be easily adaptable for many adults, but it has posed a challenge for the development of children. One of the changes children have to deal with is the practice of wearing face masks.

Masks and social-emotional development are not a good mix since the former restricts the fundamental tools of the latter.

Today, we shall discuss how masks affect the socio-emotional growth of children and what we can do to minimize their effects.

The Role of Facial Expressions in Social-Emotional Development

Facial expressions play a significant role in exchanging emotions between children, parents, family members, guardians, teachers, and caregivers.

The human face has three anatomically distinctive areas: lower, middle, and upper zones. Each of these zones has several uses for the expression of moods and feelings.

Depending on the active emotion, there is almost always a change in the appearance of these zones. These facial zones change appearance as an effect of facial muscle movements.

In essence, facial muscles are our primary emotional muscles. Like any other muscle, the muscles of the face develop through training, practice, and exercise.

Children innately study the facial expressions of their peers and elders and use their observations as bases for their own reactions. The expressions children see in our faces jumpstart several different cognitive processes, including positive or negative responses.

Children learn the different emotions for dealing socially by copying, imitating, or mimicking the faces of people around them.

Masks and Social-Emotional Development Challenges

As the spread of the Coronavirus remains rampant, the face mask continues to have a vital protective function. However, it poses some challenges to people’s social and emotional growth, especially children.

As adults, we already have years of social and emotional training, and it is easier for us to adapt to wearing masks.

Since the proper wearing of masks involves covering the middle and lower zones of the face, much of our facial expressions become unreadable. For children who have little background in interpreting social responses, it becomes more challenging to determine other people’s feelings and emotions.

This problem becomes even more amplified for children with special needs. Children with autism, for example, have difficulty combining visual cues from facial expressions and auditory signals from speech and sound.

With the visual cues hidden behind a mask, putting all the signals together becomes more challenging.

Before the pandemic, children had the advantage of interacting through their eyes and mouth. Since face-to-face learning requires that they wear masks now, they have to divert all non-verbal communications through their eyes and other body movements.

masks and social-emotional development in kids

Helping Children Understand Emotions Even With Masks On

As teachers and caregivers, we have to wear face masks to ensure the safety of our youth. Since these masks cover our most expressive facial features, we have to find other ways to help children understand emotions and learn social skills.

The following list is a compilation of practices and techniques to let children know there is still a unique emotion behind every mask.

Learn How to Talk to Young Children About Wearing Masks

The easiest way to get a toddler to wear a mask is to introduce it during playtime.

With pretend play, explain why you or a child must wear a mask, but keep your explanation simple. Avoid statements that might scare children, and stick to discussing the benefits of wearing instead of the risks of not wearing.

Once children get used to wearing masks during playtime, it becomes inherent in them as they shift to learning sessions and activities.

Even if your community does not require you to wear a mask, be a role model and wear one yourself. The more toddlers see you wearing a mask, the easier it is for them to accept wearing one themselves.

Practice in Front of a Mirror

We teach children emotional expressions by acting out the most fundamental emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. However, a mask prevents us from clearly showing the facial expressions related to these emotions.

Still, we can intensify visible facial expressions and supplement them with body movements and hand gestures. Wear a mask, practice these emotions in front of a mirror, and do the same with children.

Integrate Communications With Sign Language

Aside from rendering half of your face invisible, masks will have a muffling effect on verbal communications. If you can incorporate sign language into your communications, your messages become easier to understand.

Direct Children to Look at Available Visual Cues

When talking to children about emotions, ask them to focus on your visible social cues. Describe the changes in the form of your eyebrows, eyes, forehead, hands, and body movements.

Little by little, children will understand your body movements and gestures, and they will be able to use the same themselves.

Maintain a Direct Line of Communication

Directing children to focus on social clues is the first step to helping them learn about social interactions and emotions. However, a child’s attention span is shorter than an adult’s.

The key to keeping kids focused is maintaining a direct line of communication for the entire duration of a message. Of course, the message has to be concise and easily understandable.

Even with a mask on, the chances of a child listening are better if you stay nearby, address them clearly, and face them directly.

Combine All Available Social Cues

Social cues include facial expressions, body language, vocal pitch and tone, and personal space. Since wearing a mask limits the extent of facial expressions, it would be easier to teach social skills by explaining all exploitable social cues.

While body language can be involuntary when strong emotions arise, we can also use it on purpose to emphasize emotions. The different forms of body language include posture, gesturing, body angling, mirroring, touching, and fidgeting.

With varying vocal inflections and intonations, we use high or low voices and fast or slow speech to articulate specific moods. The use of physical boundaries also helps children understand emotions since the limits of personal space help identify other people’s feelings.

Combining these social cues makes teaching children about emotions much easier since it gives them more bases for appropriate responses.

Talk About Your Feelings Often

As much as possible, integrate discussions about emotions into all forms of communication with children. Let them know when you feel a particular emotion, and encourage children to become outspoken about their current mood.

Follow up on each emotion with a consequence as a result of the reasons behind the emotion.

The more you talk about emotions, the easier it becomes for children to tell you how they feel at any given time. It also opens them up so that you can teach them how to respond to each emotion.

Use Visual Aids While Talking About Emotions

Take advantage of visual aids each time you discuss emotions with children in your care.

Printable emotion cards are available online, but you can always make a fun activity out of creating emotion cards with kids from scratch. You can act out emotions while holding a corresponding visual or emotion card near your face.

If you teach or give care to children, it would be very helpful if each child had their own set of emotion cards. Once they get used to these visual aids, it becomes easier for them to explain their moods or feelings.

Use Emotions Check-Ins

An emotions check-in is a break, stop, or pause in any activity that enables you to assess what each group member feels at that moment. It is a helpful social and emotional tool that educators and caregivers can set into any learning situation.

Certainly, it is also a good practice for parents to use at home with their children.

Emotions check-ins normalize the practice of talking about emotions and help young learners build self-awareness skills. It is a proactive social and emotional problem-solving tool that helps each group member cope with feelings.

With emotions check-ins, calmness and mindfulness become integral in day-to-day activities.

How to Foster Children’s Social-Emotional Development During the Pandemic

Promoting social and emotional growth in children during the pandemic remains the same as how it was even before the Coronavirus emerged.

The only difference is that we have to help prevent the spread of the virus by following social distancing protocols, getting vaccinated, and wearing masks. These mitigating measures limit the face-to-face interactions of education and health care professionals with families and their children.

Nevertheless, aside from the internet, the same mitigating measures comprise the bridge that allows us to access continued education and health care. Here are some tips for fostering social and emotional development in children, even as the pandemic continues:

Do Early Social-Emotional Development Screening

As a parent, you can make a huge difference in your child’s well-being by identifying social and emotional challenges early on. Any effort to foster social and emotional development starts with screening.

Speech delay testing and social and emotional skills screening kits are available online, and some of them are even free to use. However, you must choose a reliable and trusted screening kit to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of your child’s social and emotional skills.

Follow Up On Issues With Assessments

If initial screens come out alright, it is still advisable to administer tests regularly to pinpoint any underlying or forthcoming challenges. When a test result shows the necessity for improvement in a particular area, it would be best to get professional help.

Approach Your Child’s Challenges With Positivity

As a parent, educator, or caregiver, it is important for you to tackle social and emotional challenges positively. Social and emotional problems are inevitable, and believing that a child can change is important.

Teaching Emotions at Home

Since we don’t have to wear masks at home, social and emotional training is easier with immediate family members. We often hear that home is the first school, and parents are the first teachers.

Home is where children first develop physical, mental, social, and emotional skills. As such, we should take advantage of the time we spend at home with our children.

Doing so ensures that they become better prepared whenever they have to step out and wear masks.

Begin With Language

Social and emotional growth goes hand in hand with speech and language learning. You might want to start with speech development toys and notice how your child builds more emotions along the way.

Show Children What Emotions Look Like

Without face masks on, act out the different emotions with your kids. Exercise facial expressions and accompany each expression with corresponding body movements.

Help Them Build a Vocabulary of Emotions

Name or identify each emotion repeatedly as you show your children how emotions appear on your face and body language. Use simple adjectives to describe facial expressions and actions.

Teach basic emotion words such as happy, sad, shy, and mad and move up to more complex words like delighted, amused, disgusted, confused, and agitated.

Compensate Masking Emotions

There is a lot of concern regarding wearing masks and social-emotional development. However, no globally verifiable evidence proves that covering the mouth and nose prevents language development, a prerequisite to social and emotional skills.

As long as speech and language development occurs, facial expressions on masked faces are still readable and interpretable.

Families, educators, and caregivers can always take steps to compensate for the undesirable effects of wearing masks on socio-emotional development. Health is still a crucial safety factor, and we should not relinquish wearing face masks.