Will our youngest learners wear masks? This question was on many early educators’ minds this summer as schools considered how to return to in-person learning—which experts agree is best for children—in the fall.
Rowland Hall Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman on Park City Television's November 17 Mountain Connections, discussing how adults can teach mask wearing to young children.
At Rowland Hall, administrators began working toward this goal in the spring, closely monitoring scientific data and the most current recommendations from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as consulting with local medical experts. Since then, the school has put into place many guidelines and procedures to allow for in-person learning, including requiring all students and adults on our campuses to wear face coverings.
In Rowland Hall’s Beginning School—which serves students in 3PreK, 4PreK, and kindergarten—teachers spent the summer consulting resources and considering how they would approach mask wearing with the school’s youngest learners. They ultimately decided to teach this new life skill like they would any other—using the positive, supportive approach that the Beginning School is known for. But unlike washing hands, tying shoelaces, or zipping coats, mask wearing has an added layer of the unknown, plus built-in anxiety tied to the pandemic behind the requirement. As summer drew to a close, the teachers wondered: Would kids actually wear masks? And how much time would adults have to spend managing them?
They didn’t have to wait long for an answer, which became clear the very first week of school: not only are Rowland Hall’s youngest students willing to wear masks, but they’re wearing them without complaint and with minimal reminders.
“They’re doing awesome,” said Isabelle Buhler, 4PreK lead teacher. “It’s amazing what kids can do.”
They really respond to keeping each other safe.—Gail Rose, 3PreK lead teacher
In fact, wearing masks alongside their peers at school is proving to be a powerful way to help normalize this behavior in children. Teachers are also keeping discussions about masks positive, focusing on community benefits to appeal to young children’s natural empathy. In Gail Rose’s 3PreK class, for instance, she and assistant teacher Kirsten White explain that each child plays a role in keeping the class, and the larger school community, safe and healthy. As a result, instead of thinking about masks as a hindrance, kids view them as a way to care for their friends.
“They really respond to keeping each other safe,” said Gail.
And while educators, parents, and caregivers were understandably worried that masks would affect children’s school experience—with concerns varying from whether they would alter their ability to socialize normally to whether kids could breathe comfortably—the Beginning School teachers are happy to report that this hasn’t been the case at Rowland Hall.
“After a few days, it seemed like the kids forgot they had a mask,” said Isabelle. Gail added, “It is not interfering with their ability to have fun at school at all.”
The teachers often hear children kindly reminding one another to pull up masks that have slipped beneath noses, and they marvel at how children have embraced new rules, like sitting six feet apart, without a problem. Lead kindergarten teacher Katie Williams recalled an early experience that illustrated to her how quickly students accepted mask wearing: after she and assistant teacher Beth Ott discussed masks on the first day of school, students pointed out that Mabel, the stuffed elephant from their phonics unit, wasn’t masked. Katie remembered thinking, “Whoa, this is so normal for them.” Since then, all of the class’s stuffed animals have been given masks (the teachers even use Roary, Rowland Hall’s mascot, to drive home skills by bringing him to morning circle with his mask on wrong so the kids can correct him). It was a powerful reminder of how resilient little people are—and how they can surprise adults when given the chance.
“They can do anything, those kids,” said Isabelle. “They’re unbelievable.”
Encouraging Mask Wearing: Our Teachers’ Top Tips for Parents and Caregivers
At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, mask wearing is viewed and taught as a life skill—and like any other life skill, practice makes perfect. Below, teachers share their top tips for parents and caregivers who want to continue building mask-wearing skills outside of school.
- Model mask wearing. Continue to normalize mask wearing by letting your children see you putting on your mask whenever possible.
- Let children be the teachers. Give children opportunities to teach the mask-wearing skills they are learning at school. Ask them to remind you of the proper way to put on a mask, for example, or to show you on a favorite stuffed animal (this is especially helpful for kids who need to practice the fine-motor skills required for putting on masks).
- Talk about the importance of masks, but don’t give too much information. Short, simple answers are best for this age group (“We wear masks to help keep us and our friends safe”). Check out Wearing a Mask, a free Autism Little Learners story, for help guiding conversations (Gail and Kirsten read this story aloud on the first day of school).
- Help children choose the best masks for them. Like adults, kids want their masks to be comfortable, but you might need to do some searching to find one that fits your child’s face. Look for masks that comfortably cover the nose and mouth but don't move when the child talks. Also check that masks don't pinch or squish ears (consider styles that let you adjust elastic length) and experiment with fabrics—our teachers recommend cotton, but advise against neoprene (it loses its shape over the day).
- Give children mask-related tasks. Kids want to help keep their families safe, so give them jobs like handing out masks to family members every morning. Also, let your children choose the masks they want to wear each day as a simple, fun way to build their autonomy.
- Keep extra masks on hand. You never know when a mask will become uncomfortable, dirty, wet, or lost. Keep spares in places like the glovebox or purse, and remember to pack extras in your children’s school bags.
- Praise children. It can be hard to wear a mask all day. Remind your children how proud you are of them for keeping on their masks and protecting others.