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Mask on, mask off: With face coverings being removed, how do you explain the transition to your children?

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 28, 2022

Editor’s note: Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday morning that the indoor mask mandate will be lifted March 12 instead of March 21.

For young school children, the changes in COVID-19 safety policies at schools can be confusing, said a Seattle child development expert. More transition is expected, as Gov. Jay Inslee set a March 21 target to end the state’s indoor mask mandate.

It’s good now for parents to discuss this with children, suggested Cailin Currie, psychologist with the Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children. She offers several tips on how to talk to elementary students about the changes in protocols to help them understand.

“I think that for younger kids who are probably going to need repeated exposure to swallow some of these complex ideas, the earlier the better,” Currie said. “For early adolescents and high schoolers, talking openly and honestly with them is effective, but it’s really the younger elementary-aged kids where it’s going to be harder.”

Young children still are developing cognitive skills and have more rule-based, black-and-white thinking that make it more difficult to understand nuances, she said. “That includes their conceptions of morality and rules. Kids have an all-or-nothing or a right-or-wrong way of thinking, so the more you can talk to them about it, the better.”

Adults have developed critical thinking and coping skills that help with understanding complexities and change. But there are strategies to relate nuances to children.

“I think a great way would be tying an explanation of what’s happening to things they are familiar with because this is kind of complex for them, so when explaining that mask rules have changed, I would suggest likening it to when a routine or a rule in your household has changed to let them tie it to something they understand.

“It can be, ‘Now you have a later bedtime or more screen time because you’ve proven you can get your schoolwork done,’ or ‘Now, you can walk down the street to the bus stop by yourself because you’ve proven you can follow the safety rules.’ It’s connecting the change of a rule to a change they’ve experienced to help them understand it.”

Children need routines and predictability to feel safe, so these days, it helps to keep consistent routines at home as a buffer against unknowns elsewhere, Currie said.

She also suggested repeated check-ins because children might not be able to express their confusion or fear. For kindergartners and first-graders, the transitions can seem abrupt because masks have been the norm for them.

“My niece is in first grade, and she takes these rules more seriously than anyone else because they’ve been there the whole time; she’s not known a world without it,” Currie said.

“It’s just talking to children about the change and even helping them point out the differences so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Like, ‘Now at school, you can see everyone’s mouths – is it easier to see when your friends are happy because you can see them smiling?’

“It’s going to be a new thing for them, and all we can do is try to run alongside them and point things out and try to help them understand. Ask them what’s happening at school, what’s different now? Is it more like home where no one wears masks?”

Currie offers other tips:

• Watch that children are adjusting to changes and not acting out as a sign that they’re struggling. Another warning signal might be recurring headaches or stomach aches.

• Talk to kids about how some children and their families might still choose to wear a mask in public settings. A goal would be to avoid bullying or exclusion in school if students are singled out for use of a face covering at school, she said.

“All humans but especially young kids have that innate tendency to form in groups and out groups, and if we get heightened forms of this, that might lead to bullying and exclusion at school, which is the last thing anyone needs to be exposed to after the last two years. I think when the wearing of masks is no longer a rule, it becomes a family decision.”

• Use examples again by relating to things with which children are familiar. “I would suggest that we would explain optional mask wearing the same way you’d explain any other family decision or cultural differences. So, you can say, ‘Some of your friends may wear a mask, and some of them won’t the same way some of your friends like to wear hats, and some of them don’t, or like in our family, we don’t watch TV on school nights, but at your friend’s house, they do, and that’s OK because families have different rules,” she said.

• Realize that kids model adults, so parents should pay attention to how they talk about other people regarding their mask wearing or vaccinations. Be mindful of language that shows kindness and perhaps ties into your family’s rules, such as, “We don’t make fun of people, do we?”

Currie has a background in kids’ well-being, mindfulness and student motivation and engagement. She serves as a research scientist at Committee for Children.

The nonprofit focuses on kids’ social and emotional well-being. Currie said in working with social-emotional learning programs, anything that adults can do to support those skills such as communication and empathy is only going to help children in their development.

“These are unprecedented times, and we’re not really sure how this is affecting kiddos, so it’s important to support their successful development and help them develop critical-thinking skills overall,” she said. Currie also reminds parents that this is a stressful time for them, as well, so remember to have a little adult self-compassion.

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