Pre-teaching Kids to Wear a Mask

When we want to help our children learn a new skill or behavior, pre-teaching can set us all up for success. Pre-teaching means letting a child know in advance what is going to happen and what is expected of them. This is a great way to let children know the steps needed to be successful in a certain situation (like social distancing or wearing a mask).

With the many changes we have seen since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, there are certainly a lot of new things to learn, such as what to do to protect others and ourselves when we enter a public or indoor space. We will use the example of mask-wearing to give you an idea of how you can use pre-teaching to help your children understand what is expected of them and make their world a little more predictable during this unpredictable time.

Some of you may know if your child will be attending any in-person schooling or childcare, and others may not know yet. Even if children will not be attending school or daycare in person yet, for many families there may be times when the children will be in public or indoor spaces, requiring the use of a mask.

Pre-teaching mask wearing

  • Know what you want your child TO DO. When using pre-teaching to teach your child to wear a mask in public spaces, keep your instruction focused on what you want her TO DO.

For masks, you want to let your child know HOW to put in on and take it off properly:

      • Wash their hands for 20 seconds before they put on the mask.
      • Only touch the mask by the loops when putting it on or taking it off.
      • Make sure it covers their nose, mouth and chin.
      • When they take it off, put in a special place (like a Ziploc bag) until they get it home for washing.

Then, you might want to talk about WHEN to wear the mask. For example, maybe you want your child to put on their mask when you get out of the car and keep it on until you get back to the car (or put it on when they get to school and keep it on until snack or meal time).

  • Timing. Choose a calm moment to pre-teach about masks before your child needs to wear one, but not so far in advance that they forget your instructions. For some children you may consider discussing wearing masks well in advance and then using pre-teaching to remind them what is expected just before they need to put on their mask.

Since masks are likely to be new to most kids, you also might practice at home a few times before your child will need to start wearing it at school or in public. This way they can practice how to get it on and off and see how it feels to wear it around.

  • Pre-teach the new behavior.  When it is time to wear the mask to school or another public place, tell your child what is about to happen and what you would like them to do. Remember to use lots of encouragement to show your support and faith in their ability to follow your directions.
    1. We’re about to get to the store.
    2. Before we leave the car (or bus, or bike rack), I want you to put on your mask just like we practiced, and keep it on until we get back to the car.
    3. You are such a big kid, I know you will be able to do this!

First, I let my child know what we are going to do, then, using clear and simple language I told them what TO DO, and I gave some encouragement at the end to increase the likelihood that they will have the confidence to succeed.

Because mask wearing is so new to kids, we have a few more tips about things you might do to help kids get used to masks:

    • If mask-wearing is a challenging new skill for your child, set them up to earn something small (like a sticker or small prize) each time they use their mask correctly in a public space. Then, each time they need to use a mask, pre-teach what is about to happen and what you expect them to do and provide encouragement until the new habit is formed.

You could also try a “superhero challenge”.  Lots of superheroes wear masks and you could tell your child that when they wear their mask they can be a superhero too because they are protecting other people. Then track how often your child wears their mask appropriately, or remembers to put it on by themselves. After a certain number of successes, think of a “superhero reward”, like choosing a movie to watch on tv or having some special time with a parent.

    • Use masks during play time. Kids might feel more comfortable if they can use masks with their dolls or stuffed toys. This helps them to play out different scenarios with masks. They might need their teddy bear to go with them into a store with a mask on the first few times.
    • Let you child pick out their mask, if possible. Or find one in a pattern or color that you know that your child will like. Lots of people are offering homemade masks for sale and they often have kid-friendly fabric patterns. And online retailers also have fun prints. You also want to make sure that the mask is comfortable. There are a lot of different styles out there to choose from.
    • For kids with sensory or developmental challenges or anxiety, wearing a mask may be difficult at first. Here are some great resources from Understood and the University of Rochester with suggestions about how to help children with particular sensitivities or who learn differently to wear masks. (These are also super helpful tips for all kids.)

And, as always, the best way to help kids to remember when and how to wear masks is to BE A ROLE MODEL. When they see you wearing your mask, they will be more willing to try and they will be reminded how to do it.  And it keeps everyone safe!

Check out our blog post Getting Ready for School During a Pandemic for some additional tips to help children get ready to wear masks in a school setting as well as some ideas about other times when you might use pre-teaching to set your child up for success!



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