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By Master Trainer Lisa LaMela

I’m willing to bet you’ve heard, and thought about, and talked about “CDC recommendations” more in the last 5 months than in the last 3 (or 30?) years combined. If you’re like me, you’ve even lost a little sleep contemplating how to follow these recommendations, and what they mean for you and your loved ones. 

One such recommendation is for the use of cloth face covers.  Messaging around whether face masks were necessary, safe and/or appropriate, to be worn by the general public changed a few months back.  In the early days of coronavirus, I remember the news actually telling me not to wear a mask. When that messaging changed, at least where I live here in Pennsylvania back in mid-April, I was confused, but also intuitively relieved.  If our goal is to stop the spread of this illness-causing virus that travels through our noses and mouths, doesn’t a barrier between one’s nose/mouth and the air breathed by others make sense? 

It felt weird at first.  It was stuffy and hot and my sunglasses kept fogging up.  Another widely publicized, took-some-practice-for-me, recommendation for slowing virus spread: “don’t touch your face” felt nearly impossible when I started wearing a face mask in public.  But over the last month+, I’ve come to accept this new accessory as just another part of our “new normal.”  But if this much practice, adjustment, and effort is necessary for me as an adult, imagine it from a child’s perspective. 

Mom helping kid wear a face mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice is for children 2 years and older to wear cloth face coverings when in public settings.  The whole idea is to help prevent people, including children, who may be infected, but not know it, (a bit on asymptomatic spread here) from transmitting the virus.  A few months back, a colleague of mine wrote about improving hand-washing and cleanliness habits, which seemed like a daunting enough task in the midst of a global health crisis.  In the same vein, my goal now is to provide you with some practical steps to help make the practice of wearing masks easier for your little ones.

Make Sure It Fits

Adult size masks won’t work on those little faces.  Masks should fit snuggly, cover the nose, mouth, and chin, and shouldn’t have gaps or openings on the top, bottom, or sides.  An ill-fitting mask will be more tempting to touch and readjust, which means less protection! Remember that the goal here is to keep from touching once it’s on, period.  Many who are producing masks make them in children’s sizes (you can check them out on sites like Etsy, or 15 retailers recommended here), or you could make your own.  It may take some trial and error to get the right fit, but once you do it’ll be safer for everyone.

Model   

We can help to normalize wearing face masks by doing it ourselves for our kids to see.  For some children, having something on the face can seem weird or scary.  As our children’s role models, we can show them it that it’s no big deal through or own actions.  If we make it seem terrible/uncomfortable/like such a burden, it will be.  But if we model that it’s no big deal, it’ll be more likely that our kids share our opinion. 

Practice at Home

You’ve heard this before, and you’ll hear it again, if you don’t have to go out it’s usually best to stay at home.  However, when our little ones do need to be in public spaces, for example if you need to bring the kids along on a grocery run or other essential errand, in many parts of the country that signals that it’s time to mask-up.  We can make this feel easier if it’s something we’ve already practiced.  Explaining the “rules” (e.g. no touching), and practice, practice, practice!

Keep Those Hands Busy

It’s one thing to simply explain that we shouldn’t touch our masks and faces.  It’s another to make it less likely, or less possible!  (For you Safety-Care users out there, think incompatible behaviors and differential reinforcement).  While practicing wearing a mask, it can be a good idea to give children something else to do.  If they’re sitting idly, thinking about this new, funny thing on their face, they’ll probably be tempted to touch it, play with it, take it off, etc.  But if they’re occupied, all that becomes less likely. For some additional mask-practice, pop it on while coloring, holding onto the ropes of a backyard swing, or flipping the pages of a favorite book!  Occupy those hands!

REWARD!

And with all this practice, don’t forget the rewards! Rewarding that proper mask-wearing-behavior can help to establish safe, healthy habits.  I mean, what kind of behavior analyst would I be if I didn’t talk about the power of positive reinforcement!?  Remember, providing access to the good stuff after the behaviors that we want to see will make it way more likely that we continue seeing those desired behaviors in the future! 

So consider having your child(ren) “work toward” something they love.  Think “if you _____, you’ll get ____” type incentives.  Start small and gradually build up the time you’re expecting the mask to be worn.  Just make sure to follow up on those rewards that you’ve promised!  If we say “you’ll earn fruit snacks” and then forget to give the fruit snacks, this’ll never work. 

Make It Fun

Incorporating activities and play themes that your child already likes into the world of face mask wearing can help to keep it light and fun.   If you have a budding artist on your hands, consider decorating masks with fabric paint or stickers!  If your child has a favorite stuffed animal, maybe stuffy gets a mask of its own, or perhaps Barbie and Ken put on their masks before jumping in the convertible. Make it fun by pairing the mask theme with things your child already enjoys.    

It’s hard to know what the future holds.  In my area, and cities and towns across the country, plans are underway to open schools back up in the fall.  At the same time, alternative plans are under development in case reopening schools isn’t a safe option come fall.  Whatever happens, it does seem likely that masks will continue to be a part of day-to-day for the time being, especially as restrictions continue to lift and more business reopen.  As long as children are expected to cover their faces it’ll be up to many of you parents and professionals out there to support and encourage their proper use. 

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