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Communicating Through Masks

Communicating With Your Child Through Masks. “The New Normal”, that’s what they’re calling it. A way of living and adapting while coexisting with Covid-19….AND IT IS HARD. It is hard for us as parents and it is hard for our children too. Things are different now and with that can come feelings of insecurity and anxiety for all.

Every time I am in the grocery store I am still taken back by the fact that everyone is wearing facial coverings. Even though it is required, it still feels weird, overwhelming, and even a little scary. Many of our children will experience similar emotions in response to masks.

As a parent, one concern you may have regarding mask-wearing may be about your child’s emotional well being. Children who feel anxious about masks may need help getting comfortable with this new norm. There are resources to guide you in how you can help decrease your child’s anxiety towards masks. On the other hand, many children will not be phased by mask-wearing or will easily adjust to this “new normal”.

Another concern for parents might be the impact that masks may have on a child’s learning or speech and language development. As speech-language pathologists, we continue to get asked:

  • Will my child be able to master new words and/or speech sounds when caregivers and teachers are required to wear masks all day?
  • At school or daycare, will my child be able to follow directions using only their auditory comprehension (listening) skills?
  • Will there be negative consequences if my child cannot see my mouth and facial expressions when I am talking to him?
  • As speech pathologists, are you concerned!?

The truth is, we are concerned and we think it is important to raise awareness on this topic. But at the same time, a situation like has never happened before; therefore, the evidence and research are lacking to determine the specific impact that masks may or may not have on a child’s speech and/or language development.

But here is what we do know based on several relatable research studies and sources…

  • “Lip reading is the act of using visual cues to understand and interpret speech in the absence or presence of sound. Normal hearing individuals process some speech information from the sight of the moving mouth” (“Lip Reading”, 2019, para.1).
  • Research shows that humans are most successful in interpreting language when both auditory and visual information are accessible during everyday listening. (Peelle and Sommers, 2015).
  • One study wanted to determine why children look in the direction of a speaker’s mouth versus a speaker’s eyes? The results show that children tend to focus on different facial features depending on their age and stage of development (ranging from infancy through preschool). However, regardless of a child’s age, the findings reveal that most children tend to rely and focus on both the mouth and eyes of a speaker to assist in the interpretation of oral messages. (Morin-Lessard et. al., 2019).
  • Face masks can be an obstacle in watching facial expressions and determining empathy toward a communication partner. (Wong et.al., 2013).
  • Surgical Masks can affect one’s speech perception from a masked communication partner. (Wittum et. al., 2013).
  • AVT (Auditory Verbal Therapy) teaches an individual to use solely hearing to comprehend a verbal message. An individual learns to rely on listening rather than visual cues to comprehend a spoken message. Many children with cochlear implants improve communication development with use of the AVT treatment method. This proves that when necessary, children are capable of succeeding in comprehending a spoken message using only auditory and verbal sources (Stith, 2014).

As you can see, related research shows that comprehending oral language is improved with the addition of visual cues (watching a speaker’s mouth movements and facial expressions). But here’s the thing, in many places at this time we can’t control the facial covering regulation. Facial covering is in place to minimize the spread of Covid-19 and those regulations may be here for a while.

But, the good news is YOU CAN CONTROL how you communicate to others and to your child when you are wearing a mask. You can also share this article with your child’s caregivers or teachers if needed.

Here are 8 tips on how to improve communication while wearing a facial mask covering:

  1. Speak clearly. Make it a point to enunciate words and sentences
  2. Exaggerate speech sounds if needed
  3. Speak in a slow, unhurried way
  4. Decrease background noise if possible
  5. Turn up your speaking volume. Use a deep breath to help project your voice
  6. Be expressive with your eyes (our eyes show happy, sad, and scared emotions)
  7. Use gestures or body language to support your verbal message (act out action verbs)
  8. Show the child objects as you speak about them

One more option is that you can purchase a mask that has a clear covering over the mouth, this will allow your child to continue to see your mouth movements as you speak. You can also purchase these as gifts for teachers! These masks are commonly used for communication partners who interact with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing and they are wonderful masks that allow one to continue to rely on lip-reading.

And guess what? You can control something else too! You can make a positive impact on your child’s speech and language development when you are at home and not wearing a mask. This is SO important. Your next thought may be, how can I do this in addition to everything else that I am taking on right now? Our online courses will teach you how you can maximize communication opportunities at home during the everyday routines that you are already doing. You don’t need to carve out extra time in your day “to do” speech therapy. You can make up a lot of face to face “talk time” at home. You got this!

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Tips for Communicating with Children

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