Have you thought about this? I remember bringing this up in a conversation with a colleague, but I didn’t pursue answers to my questions until recently, when my hairdresser began telling me about her daughter.
“You know how, when you’re doing something else, little kids will take your face in their hands and turn your head to face theirs, so you pay attention to what they’re saying? Well, my daughter doesn’t do that anymore. I fact, I am doing that to now.”
Turns out, her daughter is one of so many children, who are spending 8 to 12 hours a day in childcare, wearing a mask with teachers who are wearing masks.
Paying attention to facial cues has become so unimportant, that children are avoiding eye contact… not because of being distracted, but because it doesn’t matter. Tendencies seen in children on the spectrum are now being exhibited by children who never did this before.
What is it, then, about masking that is causing this shift? Is this a genuine worry, or something young children can rebound from? I was intrigued and found myself engaging in more and more conversations with parents and teachers… and looking at the research available to learn more.
If you, as a parent or educator have not considered this in earnest, today is a good day.
Newborns prefer looking at faces and it’s clear they have an innate ability to recognize what a face is. Furthermore, it doesn’t take long for them to differentiate their mother’s face from the faces of other people.
Facial mapping has shown that their gaze moves from primarily the eyes, down to the mouth. This happens at about 8 months, when, coincidentally, they begin to babble. This suggests that at this age, they are becoming interested in speech and language. Babies use a combination of auditory and visual signals to learn how to speak. They spend a lot of time looking at a person’s mouth… lip reading… trying to figure out the nature of speech. This also helps babies figure out which face goes with which voice.
Research has shown that bilingual babies lip read more than monolingual babies, probably relying on visual cues to help them keep their two languages separate.
Non-verbal communication accounts for 50% of our overall communication. The mouth and eyes are used primarily in reading faces.
Masking interferes with all of this.
It is likely, because of masking, young children are not being exposed to the many different facial expressions that stimulate good neurocognitive development. We know that between the ages of 2 and 4, children learn about emotion by watching faces.
For children to feel safe, they depend heavily on facial expressions of their parents and other caregivers, to regulate their responses to them and to particular situations. Without this opportunity for “social referencing,” the infant or child can feel unsure and anxious about their environment.
Between the ages of 4 and 5, children begin to perceive faces as a whole. Think about what happens when half the face is blocked by a mask. This can have an effect of the development of this ability, which is critical to face recognition.
Between the ages of 3 to 7, children are developing skills to empathize, to imagine what others are thinking, and how to respond. Ordinarily, they would have plenty of opportunities at school for this, but masks in the classroom have reduced these chances significantly.
So, what can be done to undo what masking has done?
Parents should realize that their baby or young child has time every day with their most important people… the family and without the need for masks.
Experts advise giving babies ample opportunities to see people’s expressions, even more than usual… give them the full package, auditory and visual. In the daily interactions at home, playing baby games, like Peek-a-Boo, can re-ignite the child’s attention to faces.
At childcare, teachers can use clear masks, when possible. When full masking is necessary, care providers should over-emphasize their eyes and eyebrows as cues, to help children recognize and learn emotions. Playing games like “How Do I Feel?” with a mask on will intentionally direct children to pay attention to these features. It can help them learn that facial expressions are more than a mouth.
When masking is no longer mandated, we are going to have to make deliberate efforts to look at our children in the face and teach them again about all the emotional expressions. We may need to take their sweet faces in our hands and turn them to ours. But, won’t that be so worth it?