How to Help Kids Learn to Wear a Face Mask

Wearing a face mask is a new skill for many of us. And for kids, especially those with disabilities, it can be even more challenging to learn. As an occupational therapist, I work on skills called Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs with students every day. Because this is a new ADL for so many of us, it may take some special strategies or extra practice for your family to become comfortable. The following tips have helped my students to get used to this practice, and I hope they help yours as well.

  • Know the laws surrounding face masks.
    • Your child may be protected under the ADA if they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. 
    • That being said, there still may be social implications when choosing not to wear a mask. 
  • Empathize with your child and talk about the “why.”
    • This is a scary time for us all, and it’s hard to explain the entire situation, much less why we are now being asked to wear masks. 
    • Have conversations about why we are wearing masks now and what purpose they serve. Try to be honest while also modifying for your child’s level of understanding. 
  • Consider if there are sensory sensitivities for your child.
    • Many children have sensitivities that make it difficult to tolerate different textures, especially in clothing. Even if this isn’t an area where your child has historically had difficulty, the skin of the face is more sensitive and your child may feel uncomfortable in a mask.
    • If this the case, plan to gradually help your child acclimate to this new sensation. Practice wearing face masks at home for short bursts of time while your child is engaged in preferred activities. Even just holding a face mask may be a good place to start for a child who is very anxious about wearing a mask. 
    • You can also try experimenting with different fabric types to see if one works better for your child. 
    • Think about tightness around the ears as well – an extender may help with this.
    • You can also consider face shields. 
    • Above all, if your child displays aversions to wearing a mask, ask them to try to describe to your their experience of wearing a mask as best they can. This can help you problem solve and think of adaptations. 
  • Give your child some control over the task.
    • This can help give them more buy-in as well as curtail any negative behaviors. 
    • Let them pick out a special design or color of mask.
  • Help your child recognize facial expressions in a mask. 
    • Face masks obscure a lot of the cues we normally use to know how a person is feeling. It can be very disconcerting for children who already struggle with reading facial expressions to have to attempt this task when someone is wearing a mask.
    • Practice donning a mask at home and showing your child the changes that happen around your eyes when wearing a mask. You can even turn it into a game of having them guess what emotion you’re expressing. 
  • Break it down into steps.
    • Just the physical act of donning a mask might be tricky for some children. Try to teach them how to put it on independently if possible – this will also help your children feel more in control if they do have an aversion to wearing a mask. 
    • Try backward chaining. This simply means doing all of the first steps of the task and allowing the child to complete the very last step. Once they’ve mastered the last step, you can have them do the second to last step and so on. This helps them get the reward of completing the task.
  • Use a reward system or positive reinforcement.
    • Consider using a token economy such as a sticker chart. Give your child a sticker every time they successfully wear a mask  – then allow them to trade in a certain amount of stickers for a prize.
  • Allow your child to practice on you or a family member.
    • Have your child practice putting a face mask on you while you demonstrate calm and happy behavior. 
  • Model the same behavior.
    • Let your children watch you wearing a mask. Talk aloud about what you’re doing and why it’s important. 
  • Practice!
    • This is a really tricky task, and unlike many other self-help tasks, it’s brand new to most of our kids. It will most likely take some time to get used to. Address it a little bit every day and try not to be overwhelmed if it doesn’t happen overnight. 

I hope this was helpful for you! Please feel free to share with other families you know who may benefit.

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