How to Keep Your Kids Learning in the Mask-Wearing Classroom

Laura Head

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Earlier this week, I published an article outlining the oft overlooked disadvantages of mask wearing in the early childhood classroom. A piece of fabric covering the half of your face as an educator means that your young learners aren’t able to make the same gains in language acquisition, social skills, emotional intelligence, and habit forming.

Another casualty of 2020.

As educators, we’re recognized for our creative problem solving abilities. Never a part of the job description, but always a reality of the position - with so few resources at hand, we know that from boundaries spring creativity.

As I spoke to in the last piece, simply not wearing masks is not a viable solution. There’s been a strong correlation found via many rigorous studies between mask wearing and decreased contraction of COVID-19. To avoid mask-wearing would be to simply reignite a different host of classroom issues - and much more grave ones at that.

So how can we promote healthy language development, re-introduce social referencing, enforce social skills, and model good habit formation, all while doing our part to help combat COVID-19? Fortunately, my professional stay in the classroom has outlived the initial panic, and we’ve found some solutions since.

Language Development

Solutions for language development come easy. I, along with many of my teacher friends, have begun to replace my fabric masks with clear ones. A simple material difference means I can once again ask my little ones to quite literally read my lips. In recent weeks, we’ve been able to usher back in the familiar practice of over-pronouncing words with a visual cue to help students course correct.

Regular storytime has become more effective again, too. In the good old days, we could sit close as I read with overt expression. We can’t read with the same reckless abandon as before, but sitting more than six feet away and wearing a face shield seems to do the trick. As I read, I can enunciate the rhythms and rhymes, and offer a visual cue to match the words on the page. Story time has reclaimed its winning place in pedagogy, modeling not only aural language skills but also the first tools that all students need on their way to becoming independent readers.

Zoom lessons are the most popular tool now for us as we lead language-intensive lessons. Here, we’re free to repeat and over-articulate consonants without the fear of spreading disease. In these Kindergarten sessions, we can emphasize pairing letter sounds with gross motor movements, helping children create that kinesthetic link to phonemic awareness.

These work-arounds mean a more enriched classroom experience for my learners, but also relieves us from the worry that kids will pass on to later grades with stunted language abilities.

Emotional Development

To compensate for the cues that go missing without the mouth, I’ve begun to over-emphasize eye and eyebrow reactions, coupled with more demonstrative hand movements to convey emotions like surprise, excitement, joy, or anger. It’s true what they say, that eyes are the window to the soul, and fortunately for us, the mouth is just the window to the stomach, or something like that. Luckily we’ve still got the most expressive organs operating with total visibility.

But of course, clear masks are a good solution for this, too. More available facial real estate means more non-verbal communication from which kids can reap the benefits.

And as it turns out, we’ve also found some hidden opportunities to expand on emotional learning that we hadn’t thought of before. In fact, social emotional learning has found its place in our curriculum more now than ever before. The value of SEL has long been on the rise in the field of education, more recently seen as fundamental to any academic achievement that will follow. Now we read books about emotions, encourage students to mimic back the feelings that we read about, and spend more time making conversation on the emotions that we wear.

Our effort to circumvent mask-related hindrances has turned out to be a perfect exercise in emphasizing social emotional learning as the necessary cornerstone of academia.

Social Development

As for social development, we’ve also outsourced the work of communication to other parts of the body. It may sound silly, but now I lead explicit mini-lessons to model hand signals that go with my words. Pointing to nouns, acting out the verbs. My kids have adopted a new gesture of gently patting a preferred toy to their chest to indicate I’m using this right now. I’ve even taught some basic sign language for words like please, again, wait, and thank you. The non-verbal tools have provided students with modes of communication that they can use into the future, masks or no.

Another series of lessons have centered around emotional regulation. If I’m inclined to bite a classmate because they can’t quite hear me, I can stop and think. Instead of biting, there’s repeating my request, counting to 5, deep breathing, finding a different activity. We practice all of this explicitly so that it becomes second nature. Using the right tools in distress has a positive feedback loop to social interaction and a stronger sense of community in the classroom.

Habit Formation

I love rules. Or, I love setting rules. I’m not a big fan of having them set for me, but that’s neither here nor there in my own classroom.

Proactive classroom management is an educational buzzword that teachers are well-acquainted with. It essentially means that you organize the classroom to prevent behavioral problems before they occur. If you know that your kids are going to misbehave after recess, for example, you design independent reading time to follow. Kids are preoccupied, on their own, and have time to recenter; Opportunities for problematic behaviors have essentially been eliminated.

So proactive classroom management may be one of the most powerful tools in forging habit formation. The kids come in daily and I have them start with a little reading of our classroom rules. On the list? We wear masks in the classroom. Our conversation includes why we do it, and a cute little student-centered modeling of how to put our masks on. It’s not fool-proof, but it does provide students with consistent messaging, and indicate to them that they’re accountable for playing their role in our classroom community.

A lot of educators panicked when COVID changed the educational landscape - and with good reason. Some months later, a bright reality is coming out of the woodwork: New circumstances means an opportunity for more holistic student-centered growth that we never could have predicted.

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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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