After the third day of kindergarten, my son Huxley reported that another kid had kicked him on the playground. It wasn’t a big deal; this kind of thing happens. But on the fourth day, he had a new frustration: He couldn’t figure out who had kicked him. The kid had been wearing a purple mask at the time of the incident, but the next day, no one in Huxley’s class was wearing a purple mask.
With all the things to worry about in 2021, it hadn’t occurred to me to fret about the social impact that masks might have on my son; I’d been so relieved that his public elementary school, in San Francisco, would require them. But here we were. Huxley couldn’t tell his new classmates apart; he had trouble hearing them; he wasn’t sure whether they could hear him; and he became especially disoriented around lunchtime, he said, because that was when all the kids took their masks off. Suddenly they looked like entirely new people. Normally he’s pretty good at making friends, but the confusion was giving him anxiety.
“Even for adults, it is difficult to recognize faces in masks,” says Changhong Liu, a psychologist at Bournemouth University, in the U.K., who studies face recognition. People process faces holistically, he told me, taking in all the features in combination—which is impossible when some of those features are obstructed by a mask, or even sunglasses. And until about age 14, children are still developing their facial-recognition skills.
Some psychologists and educators worry that such impairment in facial processing can lead to a spate of challenges with socialization and communication. Kids may find reading people’s emotions through masks particularly difficult. And for children who are meeting new classmates for the first time while masked, recognition difficulties can slow down the getting-to-know-you process and, in the long run, hinder the development of trust. England opted not to require children to wear masks in elementary school, at least for the time being; according to The New York Times, both the Conservative and Labour Parties are concerned that masks make communication harder for kids. The World Health Organization also recommended that schools weigh potential “psychosocial development” concerns when deciding mask requirements for children ages 6 through 12.
Still, we know that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19. And though the benefits of mask mandates in schools continue to be debated, the reality is that many school systems have decided—reasonably, to my mind—to institute them for young children. The good news is that teachers and parents can help kids work through any social and emotional obstacles that masks present. Judith Lowes, a psychology researcher at the University of Stirling, in Scotland, who studies children and face perception, told me that people with face blindness—a diagnosable condition in which people struggle to remember and differentiate faces—often use other cues to identify people, such as clothing, mannerisms, or voice. “Quite commonly,” she said, “people use shoes.”
She suggested that teachers encourage kids to speak with one another often, “even just having everyone say hello as they sit down.” Huxley’s teacher asked students to keep introducing themselves, even weeks into the school year. The better they get to know one another, explained Liu, the Bournemouth University psychologist, the easier it is to recognize one another. The first classmate Huxley could confidently identify was “the boy who just came back from Disneyland.”
Teachers can approach these challenges intentionally in their classroom setups too. Kristin Baker, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Hawaii, told me that she uses assigned seating so that kids can associate their classmates with consistent spots in the room. She also put up photos of the students not wearing their masks for everyone to refer back to.
Social and emotional education—teaching kids how to interact, how to make friends, and how to, well, be a human in this world—is good for everyone, even students who aren’t struggling with masks. And it’s crucial always, not just during a pandemic. Baker encourages her students to talk about their feelings directly, because they’re hard to read in masks. She uses book characters and short videos to talk about facial expressions, and exercises to encourage the kids to learn about one another. “The masking just emphasizes something that, I think, on a more societal level, we needed for a really long time, which is explicitly teaching kids what [to] ask a friend to get to know them better,’” Baker said.
These lessons in communication can be particularly helpful for kids with special needs, including developmental disabilities and visual or hearing impairments. Brian Silveira, a preschool teacher in San Francisco, told me that teachers at his school practiced emoting with their eyes and body language to help their students interpret how the teachers were feeling—a habit that could especially help children with autism-spectrum disorder, for whom recognizing emotions can be hard. Jen Mason Stott, a librarian in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public elementary-school system, now uses a headset and portable speaker to project her voice through her mask. “What’s interesting is that I think it could have been useful all along for kids who are hard of hearing,” she told me. “This is something we could maybe take with us post-pandemic.”
Yes, masks make some interactions harder, but kids are adapting. None of the psychologists or teachers I spoke with is worried about long-term social impacts. “Masks are not a reason for a sort of mass panic,” Lowes told me. Baker said that when she asked her students how they felt about masks, one told her, “You can see more when you don’t have a mask. But, you know, they’re still your friends.”
One month into school, Hux is having a much easier time distinguishing between his classmates. “I’m not scared of lunch anymore,” he tells me. He thinks he’s worked out who kicked him that first week, and he’s mustering up the nerve to ask the child about it so that they can move on and be friends. Now the biggest challenge is understanding his classmates. One boy often approaches him, but Huxley can’t hear him well, and he doesn’t know what the kid wants. “I think he wants to be your friend,” I say. Next time, he says, he’ll try to ask the boy to repeat himself.
Mason Stott, the librarian, has a young daughter named Audrey who’s experiencing something similar. “It’s like, who is my friend and who isn’t? Are they teasing with a smile or not?” Mason Stott said her daughter told her. That question is forcing her daughter to really pay attention to people’s tones.
Kids like Huxley and Audrey are getting an accelerated education in complex social life—one that will likely serve them forever. At dinner recently, Huxley told us that he’d approached a girl in his class during free time and boldly asked, “Do you want to play?” “It wasn’t even embarrassing,” he said incredulously. Was he able to identify which girl it was? I asked. Yes, he said, because she always wears pink shoes.