Mask Training & Virtual Learning: How to Help Kids Adjust This School Year

September 24, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Douglas Saphier, M.D. contributes to topics such as Psychiatry.

By: Sarah Edenbaum

The New Jersey Department of Education shared that in-person learning would require all students to wear masks, except under a few special scenarios, such as the student has a medical condition that would prevent face coverings, extreme heat, or while swimming.

While parents may grow concerned about constant mask wearing, “Children, from toddlers to teens, are developmentally very flexible to adapt to the realities around them,” said Douglas Saphier, M.D., a board certified Child & Adolescent psychiatrist with Hackensack University Medical Center.

Digital learning also comes with new behaviors and norms, with parents trying to figure out how to get their child to concentrate during their classes, but also take time to rest their eyes and engage in physical activity. The thought of handing younger kids a computer versus crayons is leaving many parents struggling with the challenge of remote learning.

Focus on Mental Health

“We are in uncharted territory, so there’s a lot for parents to be anxious about,” says Dr. Saphier. Whether it is stress over which learning model works best, concerns of getting COVID-19 or feeling like you don’t have control, “A parent’s feelings about back-to-school are escalated by their own anxiety.”

How you express these feelings can set the tone for your child. Parents need to recognize this is an uncertain time but remember to model good learning behavior and healthy thinking. To model the right behavior for your child, remember to wear a mask or show attention in a virtual meeting.

Positive Mental Health Checks for Parents

  • Remember that you have influenced your child’s behavior before, such as with potty training, no kicking and eating habits. You have been successful at changing your child’s behavior!
  • Children are resilient, and although they can be influenced by different forms of media they will often turn toward their parents, knowingly or unknowingly, to provide the context or deeper understanding of that information. This provides parents the opportunity to influence or redirect their children’s thoughts and anxiety around the situation.
  • In general, children tend to be less sick if infected by the virus.

How to Change Behavior, Based on Age

“It’s important to remember to speak to the developmental age of a child, particularly those with special needs,” said Dr. Saphier.

Children from baby to 5 years old

  • Rationale to Use: “Because Mommy/Daddy says so,” is enough of a reason for a child of this age. Generally, their neurological development will either not comprehend or retain a long-term understanding of COVID-19.
  • Strategy: Use basic conditioning with positive rewarding, when the act you are looking for is achieved.
  • Example: You see that your child rips their mask off and throws it to the floor.
    • Don’t Say: “Put that back on! You could get COVID, then you’ll have to go to the hospital!”
    • Do Say: “Look at how mommy wears her mask. Why don’t we try wearing it again, and we can color while we do it!”

Children from 6 years old to 12 years old

  • Rationale(s) to Use: “Wrong actions lead to consequences,” is a core way a child of this age understands the world. At this age, children are understanding even better that their actions can lead to rewards and consequences, and they are encouraged to behave as others do to receive those rewards.
  • Strategy: Find teachable moments to demonstrate that actions have an impact to reward or take away privileges. Remind the child that their friends, teachers and family are all wearing a mask or working/learning online.
  • Example: Your child says they hate going to school and hate the rules.
    • Don’t Say: “I know! But you’re going, so learn to deal with it.”
    • Do Say: “This is not an easy time, I agree, but you have to learn with your friends and your teacher. There are just new rules right now to make sure that it happens. If you don’t wear the mask, then you don’t get to see your friends.”

Children from 13 years old to 18 years old

  • Rationale(s) to Use: Children at this age have developed important reasoning skills, and their sense of identity is constantly evolving. They will not just follow a rule because it exists and should be a part of the decision process to effectively change their behavior.
  • Strategy: Have a conversation to discuss what is happening, the importance of everyone doing their part to minimize risk and discuss the kind of person the child wants to be.
  • Example: Your child refuses to complete their schoolwork.
    • Don’t Say: “Get back on the computer and listen!”
    • Do Say: “I know it’s not ideal, but you are smart and the sooner you are able to do it, the sooner you can get back to other fun activities.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.