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Children and face masks: Some tips from a speech and language therapist

Mask users lose visual information, but there are lots of things you can do to help them, writes speech and language therapist Kate Beckett.

Kate Beckett

THE NEWLY IMPLEMENTED use of masks by primary school children, third class and up, has sparked a heated debate.

Watching people’s faces, mouths and expressions is central to children learning communication skills. With opaque masks hiding half the face, is this going to have a detrimental impact on children’s development? Public safety is of course at the forefront, but parents are naturally concerned about this step.

How do children learn speech and language?

Speech and language skills develop rapidly during the first few years. Babies are hard-wired to learn communication skills including speech and language. Children learn speech through watching our lips, tongue, and mouth.

If we think of the ‘f’ speech sound, the visual component of learning this sound is seeing the front top teeth in contact with the lower lip. The typical development pattern is learning through observation. Therefore, we see children’s comprehensive skills developing ahead of their expressive skills.

Communication skills also include reading emotions, body language, gesture, and tone of voice. Babies as young as 10-months-old start to recognise basic emotions including happiness, sadness, and anger.

One study at Florida Atlantic University used eye gaze technology to track the movements of babies’ eyes compared to adults when shown a video of a woman talking. They found that infants aged four-months-old looked longer at the woman’s eyes, six-month-olds looked equally at her eyes and mouth while eight and 10-months-old spent longer looking at her mouth. By comparison, adults looked longer at the eyes. So how can we help prevent any negative impact?

Voice wellness and mask use

Mask users experience a loss of visual information, reduction in sound clarity and articulation and an increase in effort and voice fatigue. Mask wearers often report they have to speak louder or repeat themselves which can lead to vocal fatigue, hoarseness, or other vocal problems.

  • Posture – Sitting in an upright position allows enough air to be taken in to support voice production and projection.
  • Clarity – Moving your mouth more during speech (over articulating) can help compensate for the restrictions masks have on lip and jaw movement.
  • Hydration – Taking regular sips of water throughout the day ensures that vocal folds remain moist, pliable, and plump. This ensures your voice is easy to use and less susceptible to injury.

Tips for children wearing face masks

Masks can make communication more difficult. Masks muffle sound, inhibit lip-reading, and interpret facial expression. Children can quickly become frustrated if they are not understood so encourage your child to do the following:

  • Speak more slowly
  • Talk a little louder (avoid shouting which causes strain)
  • Increase their body language and hand gestures
  • Confirm they have been understood by asking
  • Make sure they are looking at the person they are talking to.

Social and emotional development

The chance to learn from and interact with peers is key to our socioemotional development. The long-term effect of isolation and physical distancing on acquiring skills such as self-regulation and conflict management has yet to be determined.

Increased screen time and reduced social interaction are also of concern. With reduced exercise, and limited playdates and participation in clubs or activities as a result of Covid, it is likely that the social and emotional learning children are exposed to has also been impacted.

It may be speculated that regression will become an issue as learning opportunities are restricted. In my area of work, regression is a red flag and determining the cause of regression is likely to put additional pressure on the already strained waiting lists for speech and language therapy.

What can you do at home to help?

Children are very adaptable. They are also very perceptive and may need some extra support to deal with the anxiety and stressors caused by the pandemic. Try to address this by having open conversations in age-appropriate language to help children understand the emotions they are feeling.

Sticking to your normal routine as much as possible can help children relax as their day is more predictable and familiar. Reinforcing your bond can be hugely beneficial for both parent and child so setting aside 15-minutes a day to play with or read to your child can be really beneficial.

Five fun and easy activities:

  • Make an indoor picnic
  • Have an indoor treasure hunt
  • Set up an obstacle course
  • Bake something quick and easy
  • Have a dance competition

This information is for general purposes and does not replace specific medical advice for individuals from your GP. Health care professionals seem to agree that masks should not be used on babies or children under two years old due to the risk of suffocation.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, you can contact a speech and language therapist for help and advice.

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Kate Beckett is a Senior Speech and Language Therapist and is owner of Optima Speech Therapy.

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