As an occuaptional therapist, I work with children and families to help them find success in their meaningful occupations (which is what people want and need to do). Occupational therapists work with children to help build a variety of skills needed for their meaningful activities. Some of these things are fun like learning how to move your body so you can jump and play, while others are things children may not want to practice, such as getting dressed, handwriting or tying their shoes. Often times, children may have sensory sensitivities which make these activities extremely uncomfortable (ex: a child might refuse to wear a certain type of clothing because of the sensation of the fabric on their skin). As occupational therapists working with children, we try to come up with some fun and creative ways for families to help their children build these skills.
One of the big things that will be new for preparing for back to school this year, is the Ontario requirement for children grade 4-12 to wear masks in the classroom. Wearing a mask seems to be a bit of a challenge for some adults, so one can only imagine how challenging it might be for a child who is sensitive to new experiences or certain fabrics to cover their mouth and nose for a full day.
With research and knowledge about COVID-19 changing daily (as science often does), some parents of even the younger kiddos might want to get their child prepared to wear a mask if they’re returning back to in person schooling in September.
Use simple words to explain masks! – With school still a few weeks away, start explaining to your child WHY we wear a mask, why it’s important to keep it on, when we can take it off (especially what those rules might look like at school). Answer their questions honestly, and give them support; help them with deep breathing if they are feeling nervous about it and gently remind them “it’s ok”, to help them relax.
Lead by example – one of the best ways that kids learn is by seeing the behaviour the adults in their lives are modelling. Be sure to wear your mask when heading out to public places and keep as much positivity around wearing the mask as you can. If your child sees that it’s not a big deal to put on your mask, they will be more willing to try wearing it vs if they overhear you complaining about the fabric or about not being able to breathe. Children are sponges, remember they will adopt the behaviour and attitude of the adults around them!
Start practicing NOW – If it took you a while to adjust to wearing a mask whenever you went into public indoor spaces, imagine how long it might take a child to get used to it. Take this time with weeks before school starts to have your child start wearing a mask a little bit each day. Gradually increase the time they need to wear it as the days go on (ex: first day just wear it for a couple minutes, then a little bit at the grocery store, and then maybe an hour or two on errands). Gradually practicing wearing the mask more and more will be an easier transition compared to never wearing a mask and then wearing a mask for the whole school day come September.
If they are connected to a stuffed animal, get a mask for their stuffed animal too! – Sometimes children learn better if they take on the role of a teacher to teach their toys, the role of a doctor to take care of their toys, etc. Perhaps when practicing wearing a mask, include your child’s favourite toy! (ex: Ok Sarah can you help Teddy put on their mask before we go to the shop?) And then you can always ask them why the stuffed animal is wearing their mask and see if your child understands why it’s important.
Find activities around the house where you can practice wearing the face mask! – connecting positive and calm experiences to an object can help a child become more willing to practice using it. Perhaps having the child use a mask to cover their face during a game of peekaboo can help them get used to the material against their face. Taking funny selfies/photos with the mask on can bring some laughter, or even wearing masks with your child while doing calm activities like colouring or screen time for a few minutes at a time. Just like practicing getting dressed, and practicing handwriting skills/grips, kids are more likely to participate in something if they can have a little bit of fun too.
Get fun patterned masks! – From my experience working in a daycare and at camps, kids LOVE dressing up, especially if they can compare and share their costumes with their friends. Buy or DIY masks (or have your child help you DIY and decorate a mask!) that have your child’s favourite cartoon characters, superhero logos or even just their favourite colours/patterns, and get them EXCITED about showing their friends their masks.
At the end of the day, we are all worried about what is going on in the world, but we have to make sure that we are compassionate and understanding. If your child is upset by their mask, accept their feelings and comfort them. Give them the information they need to understand, and be patient with them. Be a role model, an emotional support, and make learning to wear a mask fun!
Do you have any tips and tricks for getting your child ready to wear their mask? What has or hasn’t worked for you? Please feel free to share!