With the uncertainty of COVID-19, parents have a series of serious concerns to think about including what school will look like in the Fall. Children will either go back to school every day, part-time, or not at all. Even if they do not go back to school right away, there will be a time when they are expected back at school at least some of the time with specific guidelines in place to curb transmission of COVID-19. Although we cannot know for sure, and each school district is different, children will likely be required to wear masks at school or other events. If you are a parent, you may already be saying to yourself, “How will I ever get my child to wear a mask all day?!” As a child psychologist who specializes in child behavioral management, I am happy to share some techniques to increase mask compliance and decrease the chances of your child having a tantrum or refusing to wear a mask.
1. Provide validation and support. It is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings about wearing a mask. This is not something your child is accustomed to wearing and it may be a scary or frustrating experience. Saying, “It’s not a big deal, just wear it” will likely lead to more frustration and noncompliance. Instead try saying, “I understand that you are frustrated because this is new and different. We will get through this together.” Your child will feel heard, act less defensive, and be more likely to listen to you.
2. Stay calm and honest. You will likely have to continue to explain to your child why it is so important to wear a mask, especially at school. Try to stay as calm as possible and give specific reasons why wearing a mask is necessary. This conversation will be modified based on your child’s age and developmental level.
3. Consider the child’s interests. Simply, children gravitate towards something when they are interested in it. I suggest using a website such as Etsy.com to find custom masks that spark your child’s interest and show off their unique personality. Many child size masks have different colors, characters, or animals on them. You can even ask your child to help pick some out with you. This will get them excited about choosing the masks they like and will likely result in increased compliance.
4. Variety is the spice of life. It is important to have options available for children to wear so they do not get bored or uninterested in the mask as the novelty wears off. For kids, we need to start thinking about masks like we do clothing. Many children have fun dressing up and picking out different outfits each day. Explain to your child that the mask is a part of their outfit. Get them excited about coming up with different combinations of outfits with their mask as an accessory.
5. Use positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a procedure that maintains or increases the future chances of a behavior. This tried and true strategy can be used to increase mask wearing behavior. You can reinforce with praise (“I love how you’re wearing your mask so nicely”), activities (e.g. special time with mom or dad), or tangible items (e.g. access to iPad). When your child is following the rules of wearing his or her mask, “catch them being good” and praise the behavior. You can reward them with special activities or items following appropriate mask wearing behavior. Make it clear that they are earning the reward because they listened and wore their mask.
6. Be specific and clear. Commands are more effective when they are specific and clearly tell a child WHAT TO DO rather than WHAT NOT TO DO. For example, instead of telling your child, “Don’t take off your mask,” try this instead: “Keep your mask on covering your mouth and nose while we are inside the store.” This provides clear expectations and reminds your child how to properly wear a mask. Tip: Make sure your child is listening to you when you give this command. Stand close to them and make eye contact.
7. Start practicing now (and start small). Some children, especially younger ones, may need time to learn to tolerate wearing a mask for an extended period in school. I strongly encourage parents to start this process now and help their child work their way up to longer periods of time. Set a timer for a specified amount of time that is do-able for your child to wear the mask. Have them wear the mask until the timer goes off and then immediately praise and reinforce the behavior. As they become more tolerant of the mask, you can increase the time they have to wear it in order to receive reinforcement.
8. Model appropriate behavior. Children are greatly influenced by what they see and hear. Family members should try their best to model appropriate mask wearing behavior in situations where wearing a mask may be necessary (e.g. inside a store or outside when social distancing is not possible). Children will learn that mask wearing is important and copy you. However, if they see you are taking your mask off in a store, or wearing it improperly, they may think that is safe and appropriate behavior. If you want them to comply with proper mask wearing behavior, do as you want them to do.
9. Remember you and your child are not perfect. This is a totally new situation that we have not had to face before, so please cut yourself some slack. You and your child will make mistakes and there are certain things out of your control…like when you are not with your child at school or if your child takes off their mask during a tantrum or by accident to take a drink of water. As a parent, you cannot fully control everything and decrease risk to zero. What you CAN DO is take precautions and use proven strategies to increase mask wearing behavior, support your child emotionally, and get them ready for the possibility of extended mask wearing in school.
More about Dr. Darian:
I am a licensed psychologist in Rockland County, NY. I have spent years working in various school and clinical settings and specialize in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, behavioral disorders, autism, and other developmental disabilities. I provide strategies to reduce test anxiety and improve study skills. I also provide parent behavioral training and child advocacy. If you found this article helpful or would like to speak about your child’s specific needs, I am available to assist. You can contact me by calling (845) 288-3477 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.darianpsychology.com.