“There are sensitive periods in early childhood development in which language development and emotional development are really rapidly developing for the first few years of life,” said Ashley Ruba, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.
Being able to use others’ verbal or facial cues to figure out how someone is feeling or pick up on safe or dangerous aspects of environments and people is a critical task for young kids, Ruba added.
Concerns that wearing masks might interfere with these natural learning experiences and communication skills have been studied before the pandemic.
Ruba and her coauthor showed more than 80 children ages 7 to 13 photos of faces that were unobstructed, covered by a surgical mask or wearing sunglasses. The faces displayed sadness, anger or fear.
Given these findings and children’s innate flexibility in adapting to challenges or catching up, some experts aren’t suspecting any long-term effects of mask-wearing on children’s development.
“I think once masks are gone or almost gone, whatever impact it has, we’ll quickly recover,” said Dr. Hugh Bases, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health.
If children’s “social and language development is a little bit slower, which it could be, balancing that with the risk of someone dying of the coronavirus — when all the evidence we have indicates that they will catch up and they will be OK — just doesn’t seem worth it to me,” said Amy Learmonth, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
“I look at the numbers of people who have died in this country, and it’s horrifying.”
Differences among ages and learning styles
“What your 6-year-old is learning is about things like sarcasm and meaning. What your 1-year-old is learning is, like, that thing with four legs that runs around the house is called ‘dog,’ ” Learmonth said.
If you’re worried about your child’s lingual and social development during the pandemic, just ensure you set aside time to talk with your child face-to-face when you’re at home and not wearing a mask, Learmonth suggested.
“For most of our kids, as long as they’re getting interaction with their parents in the morning and in the evening, they’re going to be OK.” These interactions could be during baths, playtime or meals.
Additionally, “conversation often is more than just the actual verbal content,” Bases said.
One concern, however, is for kids whose lingual or social development is atypical, Learmonth said.
“Anyone who is just a little behind in language development or a little behind in understanding social cues — what concerns me is that they will fall further behind,” she added.
“Because unlike a typically developing child who is probably all right with only four or five hours of full-face interaction a day, a child who’s struggling is going to need all they can get and more,” Learmonth said.
When parents can help
To better communicate with a child while wearing a mask, the AAP recommends adults get the child’s attention before speaking, face the child directly with no physical or noise barriers in the way and speak slowly and louder, but not shouting, if needed.
You can add contextual information to your words by using your hands, body language and tone of voice. Depending on the response, ask whether your child understood and repeat yourself if necessary.
The “greater good” of protecting one another, teachers and families “far outweighs the potential theoretical issue that might come up as a result of wearing face masks,” Bases said.
“Kids adjust, they adapt, and when they don’t have to wear them, they’ll adapt again. … It’s a very fluid, dynamic kind of learning. And development is obviously not linear. There’s ups and downs, even in days before face masks.”
Another encouragement is that children living in cultures where face coverings are the norm still learn to communicate, Learmonth said. “There are lots of ways across the world to speak to small children, and they all work.”