Our brains do not like surprises—they love to make predictions by finding patterns that are familiar, and they learn from associations, connections, and patterned experiences. But as schools begin to resume in late summer, there will be many unfamiliar experiences: new routines, schedules, and guidelines. Especially for young students, it’s going to be challenging at best to adjust to wearing masks for extended periods.
States, districts, and schools that are returning to in-class teaching will have a variety of regulations and protocols, and we need to think collectively about how we can help young students follow those protocols. Parents can help by getting their kids used to wearing masks for increasing intervals even before school begins, and I have some suggestions for how we might introduce masks to students while creating safe and predictable environments to allay the expected fear and anxiety these changes could create.
It will be particularly important for educators to share their own feelings and sensations when wearing the masks in the first few weeks of school. When we share our vulnerabilities, worries, and questions, we can sit beside our students in creating a safe, open space for them to express their concerns and worries.
Connections and trust will need to be our priorities at the onset. What props, hats or other pieces of clothing, fictional characters, or objects could you share to introduce yourself and create positive associations and connections right away? How could you reveal your passions, interests, and personal stories while wearing your mask during that first day or week of school? I’ve shared the strategies below with teachers all summer. They have started implementing these with pre-K students, who report loving the activities and feeling a sense of calm.
In my work as a professor of education, I’m fortunate to be able to spend two mornings a week in K–12 classrooms. When I meet my new fourth-grade students in a few weeks while I’m wearing my mask, I will bring a plastic brain, a pair of flip-flops, and a picture of my family’s rescue dog, Nellie. The students will learn a little about me through these objects as I in turn, will invite them each day for the first few weeks to share their passions and interests through objects or images.
Strategies for Starting the Year in Masks
1. A calming bag: Tangible items such as Band-Aids, mints, a personal note or encouraging sticker, extra pencils, etc. can often feel comforting when someone notices our fears or worries. Rather than share these items, at the moment it might be best if teachers create a bag for each student—if a grant or other funding is available—or send home a list of items so that parents and guardians can create the bags. Students keep them at school and use when needed. What would you put in a calming bag?
2. New routines: Teachers should be purposeful about creating classroom routines to ease any embarrassment, discomfort, worry, or anxiety students may have about wearing masks. Many of our students will not walk in already accustomed to wearing masks, so routines and predictable structures can help them feel calm and ready to learn. Routines can include things like drawing or journaling thoughts.
3. Connections with parents: A letter to parents outlining class procedures and routines will ease their anxiety and that of their kids. Teachers can also use this letter to invite parents to share the celebrations and challenges their children have experienced over the past several months.
Here are a few questions to consider asking parents:
- What are the two or three best ways I can create a positive experience for your child this year?
- Please share your favorite memories of your child. What makes him or her smile and laugh?
- What do you need from me that would be helpful for your family?
- What are ways I could help your child adjust to the mask this year?
- Are there any changes at home that would be helpful for me to know? (You can frame this as a yes/no question, and give parents the option to explain if they wish.)
- How can we work together this year? Is there anything you would like to teach or share with our class this year?
4. Face masks and superhero powers: This is a new focused attention practice designed around masks. Ask students what superhero they are, and ask them all to create a power pose. As they hold this pose, have them breathe in three deep breaths, hold for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out a superpower they wish to send to themselves, someone they care about, or the world.
5. Morning meeting questions: These are some questions teachers can use in the first week or two as students get used to their masks and each other.
- How does a mask protect us?
- Do you know of any superheroes that wear masks?
- Maybe we could all decorate our own paper masks? What colors, shapes, and designs do you want on your mask?
6. Theme weeks: The first weeks of school are going to feel rough for many educators and students. Sometimes redirecting our attention away from our masks can more easily occur if we focus on something else. One way to do that is to designate theme weeks with a variety of associations and connections. Ideas include things like Favorite Color Week, Animal Week, Favorite Tradition Week, Artist Week, Music Week, and My Buddy Week. You can also ask students for suggestions so that they feel empowered by the themes. Teachers and students together can also come up with activities for the themes.
7. Emotion reading practice: We are capable of reading facial expressions from the eyes up. Teachers can spend a few minutes a day practicing this. Have a student wearing a mask think of a feeling and try to express that with their face, and ask the class to guess the emotion or feeling. Another option is to put little masks on the emojis on feeling charts. Students can work to become experts at reading facial expressions of people wearing masks, which could be a fun ritual that reduces anxiety and fear.