Wearing a mask has become the norm in many public spaces all over the world, including being a required piece of the uniform as many schools return to in-person learning. For some, this can be a minor inconvenience or annoyance, but for many children with sensory processing difficulties, it is a much more challenging experience. We’ve created this toolkit to help children keep themselves and others safe and comfortable and wear a mask as our world returns to a new normal.
Why is it hard for my child to wear a mask?
Everyone processes sensory input differently, but for many children with sensory processing difficulties, masks present a new set of sensory experiences that may be uncomfortable or intriguing for them, resulting in both avoidance and seeking behaviors. Masks present the following challenges:
- Increased tactile input around the mouth, which may feel scratchy
- The smell of the inside of the mask
- Pulling at the ears
- Damp or wet masks from breathing and chewing
- Different sensation from breathing through the mask
The first step in figuring out how to help your child tolerate a mask is to observe what difficulties or complaints they have about wearing it.
How can I help my child wear a mask?
The following ideas can help a child get used to the sensory input and experience of wearing a mask:
- Model wearing your own mask. Have your child place a mask on a stuffed animal and talk about why and where we wear masks to set up clear expectations
- Practice wearing a mask for increasing periods of time. Start with short bursts in a place that your child feels comfortable before advancing to longer periods of time in new places.
- Reduce other sensory stimuli. Wearing a mask may contribute to sensory overload, so be mindful about what other stimuli your child is experiencing when wearing a mask. Decrease visual (lights) and auditory (sounds) input to reduce the likelihood of overload. This may be a helpful strategy in the classroom as well.
- Add extra calming proprioceptive input to your child’s routine when they are wearing a mask. Heavy work activities (such as pushing, pulling, carrying or squeezing objects) can help provide organizing input that overrides the tactile input of a mask.
- Use a mask expander at the back of your child’s head to reduce the sensation of tugging at their ears. A mask expander like this may help.
- Keep your child’s hands busy by offering a fidget to reduce the likelihood of playing with or attempting to remove the mask. The added tactile and proprioceptive input from a fidget may also help maintain a regulated state while wearing a mask.
- Practice taking deep breaths while wearing a mask to help your child regulate their emotions and calm down. Try starfish breaths (tracing around the outside of each of their fingers as they breath) or using a visual, like this video.
My child is chewing on their mask and leaving a wet mark. What should I do?
Most likely, your child is seeking oral input to help organize their sensory systems, and the mask presents a new opportunity for something interesting to put in their mouth. However, chewing on a mask can make it less effective and also more uncomfortable to wear. Try replacing chewing on the mask with chewing on something else. For older children, gum or hard candies can provide the oral proprioceptive input they are seeking. For young children, a chewy that can be chewed under their mask can be helpful. These strategies may also work well at school to help your child organize and keep their mask on while seated at a desk.
Wearing a mask, like any other sensory experience, may take some time and a bit of practice to get used to, but with positive reinforcement and play, we can make the experience more fun than work!