In September 2020, wearing a mask became compulsory for nursery staff. Early childhood professionals wondered about its possible repercussions on young children, sometimes accommodated for long periods (50 hours per week for some). We collected the testimonies of nearly 600 of them during a survey conducted in December 2020 posted on the site of “Pros de la petitefance”.
After indicating on what occasions they wore and removed (if applicable) their mask during the day, the professionals recorded the reactions they observed in the children when the mask was worn and when it was removed.
Wearing an opaque mask and an inclusive mask (transparent mask showing the mouth) was distinguished. Professionals also had the possibility of leaving any comments they deemed useful (their practices, their feelings, etc.). The daily facts, which they relate with reliability and precision, are very informative.
A little less than a quarter of the professionals in the field report not observing any particular reaction from the children to the fact that the adults in the reception center wear the sanitary mask. Some emphasize the adaptive capacity of children, sometimes even admitting their surprise at their resilience.
The remaining three-quarters, on the other hand, find effects in terms of socio-emotional and emotional relationships and language. As for the children, the fact that they very often try to take off the adult’s mask, especially when they are in their arms – the older ones, them, simply asking the adult to remove it – shows that they experience it as something unusual.
In terms of emotional and social reactions, the vast majority of testimonials from professionals report notable effects of wearing a mask. They mention worried reactions, describe children staring closed or staring or crying because of the adult mask. They also evoke children who are much less smiling than before and, above all, smile-responses that are absent or take longer to trigger when the adult smiles behind his mask.
Certainly, some children seem to have become accustomed to the masked face, displaying a smile in response to the “masked” one of the adult. Nevertheless, the majority of professionals believe that the mask alters the quality of socio-emotional interactions . Many of them feel the need to remove the mask regularly to establish contact with the child (at the time of reception, for example), to make him safer (when he cries in particular), or to break their impassibility.
Confusion about the identity of the adult is also a reason for removing the mask. When the child clearly does not recognize the professional, he sometimes has to remove his mask. This almost always makes the child smile. The interaction between the child and the adult changes: the child’s face lights up, the smile-response appears almost automatically and occurs several times during the time of the unmasked exchange.
According to several professionals, children then tend to focus their attention on the adult’s mouth when they can finally observe it, like a rare commodity.
Effects on language acquisition
Some children have only known the professionals in masks. They are generally the youngest. When adults take off their masks, it is not uncommon for them to have negative reactions. Some children become alarmed, even cry, and do not calm down until the mask is put back on. Having never seen the faces of professionals other than three-quarters hidden, the removal of the mask reveals a “foreign” or “strange” face to them.
Undeniably, this novelty disturbs them. As a counterpoint to those who fail to identify the masked adult, these children do not recognize the face uncovered as that of the adult who is familiar to them.
Another notable point is that of language acquisition, in its different aspects (understanding, production, listening). The testimonies of professionals reflect their fears of the harmful effects of wearing a mask, especially since the period concerned is particularly sensitive to this acquisition.
Entry into communication and language in very young children occurs through multiple channels that complement each other. Thus, they do not only listen to the language, they also look at it, relying on the vision of the face and in particular of the mouth of the adult.
However, wearing a mask makes it difficult for them, on the one hand, to spot the speaking adult, and on the other hand, to understand what is being said. Indeed, the difficulties mentioned by professionals relate above all to that of understanding the messages and instructions, especially in older children from 18 months. They also focus on children’s difficulty in pronouncing and / or repeating words correctly (car, banana, etc.), or articulating other sounds (sounds of animals, engines, etc.) for lack of an imitation model .
Children also seem less attentive and less involved in discussions, which leads to a poorer interaction. Conversely, as soon as they remove their mask, professionals observe increased attention and participation of children. Thus, during a rhyme, the children look a lot at the face and the mouth of the adult who, without a mask, gives them access to imitation (click of the tongue, cry of the elephant, the mouth of the frog …).
Many professionals believe that the quality of support for children is negatively affected by wearing a mask. First of all, the conditions for exercising their profession are badly experienced because of the painfulness of the various physiological effects (headaches, fatigue, difficulty in breathing, etc.). This sometimes leads them to reduce the time spent on songs, nursery rhymes and story reading.
Communication with children is made more difficult. They have to think about adapting their way of expressing themselves to compensate for the presence of the mask: modulating their intonations more, accentuating the movements of the top of their face. These compensatory strategies that they need to think about induce mental overload.
Finally, the fact of having to speak louder, which has the consequence of increasing the general sound level, is also badly experienced. This affects the quality of the atmosphere in the reception area.
In conclusion, wearing a mask likely has an impact on the socialization of toddlers. Pitfalls that the inclusive mask does not seem to overcome: its discomfort, the fogging and condensation that quickly disturb it, as well as the restriction of the field of vision that it entails, do not make it the solution hoped for by many.
The negative experience reported by many professionals is not only linked to the difficulty of adapting to the constant wearing of the sanitary mask, but more generally to the feeling of a quality of life at work and a quality of reception of children whom they consider deteriorated.
The in-depth use of these testimonies will allow a better understanding of the cognitive and socio-emotional mechanisms at play in the places of reception of young children, places where the processes of adaptation of the child to life in society and to social relations are actively at work.
Author Bio: Anna Cherkassof is a Lecturer in Psychology at the Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)
This article was co-written with Monique Busquet, psychomotor therapist and trainer, Marie Hélène Hurtig, pediatric nurse and trainer, as well as Marie Paule Thollon Behar, psychologist and doctor in developmental psychology.