Among the objections to mandatory masks in schools is the assertion that wearing masks will hamper a child’s ability to learn language and socialize. There are some who support mask mandates who also worry about how the inability to see smiles and frowns might negatively affect children.
According to researchers at the University of Louisville’s psychological and brain sciences department, these concerns are unwarranted. We don’t yet have enough definitive and fully conclusive data on how wearing masks may affect children’s development. However, based on a number of ongoing studies, they believe it won’t cause any harm. There are many cultures around the world where caregivers and educators wear head coverings that obscure their mouths and noses. Children there learn and develop skills just like children in other cultures. We also know that children who are blind from birth—who cannot see faces at all—still learn to speak, read and get along with other people. Many have achieved great heights in an assortment of fields.
It’s quite possible that wearing a mask at school can actually enhance certain social and cognitive skills, especially abilities like self-control and attention. (This does not mean that masks are preferable to no masks.) Masks may be inconvenient, uncomfortable and annoying. But they do offer opportunities for learning and growth.
For example, take language learning. It is true that masks cover our mouths, and seeing mouth shape and movement contributes to language development in infants. However, learning how to communicate involves a lot more than mouths. This reality is emphasized by mask wearing. Looking at eyes is at least as important as looking at mouths to understand what is being communicated. Eye-tracking research shows that by age 2, typically developing children spend more than twice as much of their time looking at adult speakers’ eyes as at their mouths. In fact, the research has shown that children with a stronger capacity to recognize people’s thoughts and emotions based on their eyes alone exhibit greater social-emotional intelligence.
Children rely as well on other cues, such as the rhythm of spoken language, including stress and intonation, gesture and context, to figure out what new words mean and what other people are thinking. Sometimes these cues are subtle. A classroom full of people wearing masks is a great opportunity for children to practice paying attention to those cues, such as tone of voice or a teacher’s body language.
Wearing a mask can also help teach children to pay more attention to their own bodies and physical behaviors. Keeping a mask on over the course of a school day involves the kind of self-control and self-regulation that many children find challenging. Younger children must overcome the urge to pull off their mask, and older children must be aware of when their mask is slipping down or when it’s okay to take it off.
Needless to say, children will not always be perfect at keeping their masks on. But the research so far on self-control and self-regulation suggests that children who master the skills needed to keep their masks on will grow up to be better at achieving their long-term goals, solving problems and handling stressful situations. (For children who habitually bite their nails or pick their nose, a mask could also be precisely what they need to kick the habit.)
Perhaps most important, wearing masks during a pandemic is an opportunity for even young children to practice caring for their community. By preschool, children can understand that invisible “germs” can cause illness and that behaviors such as hand washing can keep germs from spreading. A recent study shows that children living through the COVID-19 pandemic understand illness transmission better than ever. During a time of anxiety and uncertainty, wearing a mask gives young children the ability to do something to help protect other people.
For older children, mask wearing is a way to teach more sophisticated ethical concepts like duty and sacrifice. By age 7, for example, children believe that it feels good to make sacrifices on behalf of others in need. Stressing that the discomfort and inconvenience of mask wearing are forms of generosity and public service might motivate children to address other social problems in their lives, like bullying.
Ultimately, how children feel about wearing masks at school, and how much they psychologically benefit from wearing them, is going to depend on how the parents, teachers and caregivers around them present the issue. Masks are hopefully not here to stay, but while they are still necessary, we should make the most of them.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a day school principal, administrator and consultant.