Four Reasons Masks Suck in the Early Childhood Classroom

Laura Head

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I hate it when people wear masks.

Let me rephrase that. For health reasons, I find relief every time adults around me are wearing masks. Huge supporter. But for every other reason, I hate it.

Masks started trending as a response to COVID relatively early in 2020. As a regular person, I was happy to oblige and have in fact found masks to be a complementary accessory to a number of outfits (I’m a New Yorker; the accoutrement is always black). As a teacher, I’ve found my opinion on masks to be much more nuanced. That’s because the safety precaution prompts developmental obstacles in my students that I had not foreseen.

Masks in the classroom - on students and teachers alike - have hindered opportunities for students to meet their potential across academic, social, and emotional terrain. Wearing masks means less facial visibility, audial interference, and a change in cultural expectation, which as it turns out, stand in the way of learning landmarks kids are typically meeting at this age.

Let me be clear: We need masks. A host of rigorous studies show that regions with the greatest commitment to mask wearing have also had the best success in curbing spikes of COVID. In the meantime, we'll need to find solutions to the new COVID-centric obstacles we face.

Language Development

My guys are still little. They’re as young as 24 months, and my oldest graduate out at 5 years old. Their cherubic glee is what brings me in to work every day, and circumstances of the past year have not extinguished any of their enthusiasm for life. It has, however, made their language learning more difficult.

At their age, children are still learning to form words. They’re learning how to use their oral motor system (read: mouth, tongue, teeth, and so on). Their speech is littered with mixed up consonants and cute mispronunciations like aminal instead of animal, and mazagine instead of magazine. All of this is standard on a developmental timeline, and over time they will ordinarily learn to self correct by watching and mimicking the pronunciation offered by their teachers.

Not these days. Visual cues have totally disappeared from our classroom setting. No longer can I exaggerate a word’s pronunciation for a misinformed three-year-old. No longer can a colleague of mine practice a little call-and-answer to teach a tricky word. All of these organic teachable moments have disappeared, resulting in a classroom full of students who are no longer able to learn from their own verbal gaffes.

Emotional Development

Another unanticipated obstacle brought on by mask wearing is in the way of emotional intelligence. At the time that they’re still sponges, children naturally look to adults - particularly their faces - to get a gauge on their reactions. It’s called social referencing, and it’s a tool little ones use in order to establish norms and regulate their own behavior. Take a tumble in the play area? An adult’s facial cues will tell me whether I ought to cry or brush myself off. Tackle someone to the ground during a game of duck-duck-goose? An adult’s expression will tell me that I’ve been too rough.

But masks take up a lot of space. Even smaller ones obscure a large part of an adult’s face, and an important part at that. Children are still looking to us to gauge our reactions, and now the feedback they’re getting is limited. Predictably, this has inhibited the non-verbal communication that was once commonplace in our classroom.

Social Development

Age two starts an important stage. Kids are experiencing their first language boom, starting to engage in associative play, and experimenting with parallel play with their peers. The world is their oyster.

A part of this social interaction, naturally, is sharing ideas verbally. You want a turn with the blue ball, you’re going to say so to your toddler pal. But in early childhood classrooms where face coverings are required, these same kids are evidently restricted in their communication; suddenly, my friend with the blue ball may no longer be able to hear my request. And while it may be intuitive to us to raise our voices through a cloth mask, it’s not so obvious to young learners. Instead, they tend to turn to...how to say, physical coercion.

My little guys and gals, full of optimism and solipsism, are today quickly resorting to snatching, pulling, or other ways to attain that precious block, firetruck, or stuffed animal.

And it’s not just me. My teacher friends in their own early childhood education settings have reported the same epidemic of kids using physical means to solve their problems.

It’s true that this kind of behavior is typical at the age of two, masks not culpable. But as an early educator, I’m worried that my students have a taller mountain to climb when it comes to developing prosocial behaviors. It’s at this age that we as educators tend to lean in to teaching young ones tools for conflict resolution and fulfilling relationships. But masks have certainly helped to stack the deck against us.

Of all the things to blame on COVID-19, who would have thought that antisocial behavior in toddlers would be one of them? Not me.

Habit Formation

As any early childhood educator knows well (thank you, Urie Brofenbrenner), children’s spheres of influence play a huge role in their development. For my layman readers (we’re glad you’re here!), this means that each adult, each environment, and each contextual preset of a child’s life sends her messages, whether she’s privy to it or not. These messages gas up her subconscious, influencing the way that she will behave at school.

We know that young children thrive on consistency of messaging. The examples modeled by adults have a tangible effect on children. More consistency = clearer expectations and a community where young learners can grow with self-assurance and a strong understanding of boundaries. Less consistency means a harder time self-regulating and a lesser sense of security.

But inevitably, messages surrounding masks have varied from one caregiver to another. Kira’s nanny has made mask-wearing a non-negotiable habit every time they leave the apartment, but Mom says she only needs it in the store. John’s Mom says they don’t need to bother with masks if they keep their distance, but his dad says masks are a must.

In their sponge-like state, kids mirror what they see, internalize it, and reference it as their litmus test for what is normal and appropriate. When kids come into the classroom with a subconscious full of such mixed messages, it makes our job as teachers enforcing mask-wearing a difficult thing to do. What then?

As teachers, we pick our battles, and mask-wearing has only added to the pile. If you had to choose between getting a child to put on her mask, and breaking up what could end up being a dangerous block accident, you would choose dangerous block accident every time. What that leaves for you is unmasked kiddos and an opportunity lost to model good habit formation.

Masks have dealt us our fair share of disadvantages on the path of rigorous learning. As an educator, I'm optimistic that creative solutions lie in wait for us to discover. In the meantime, we'll keep on wearing our masks, fighting COVID, and trying to match our little ones with unfettered glee to just be learning.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY
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