Kyle Rhein, M.A., BCBA, LBA Owner/Director, Stepping Stones Autism Center
It’s August and most of us have lots of questions when thinking about what September will hold. Whether we have children with autism, school aged children or children in daycare, our idea of normal has drastically changed in the last six months and anxiety levels are high. Most public places including schools have made statements that masks are required to enter. Families may be struggling with the thought of how their children will tolerate wearing masks for long periods of time. With the summer months upon us, many families may have been able to avoid mask wearing by avoiding public places or remaining outside for large gatherings. This may all change as September and the beginning of school approach.
Before practicing, make sure to find a mask that fits your child properly. Avoid masks that are too large and slip down from the nose or off the ears. Many companies make masks that are fitted specifically for children.
Start practicing early. When navigating wearing a mask and increasing the amount of time your child tolerates wearing a mask it is important to start practicing prior to the date wearing masks are required. The sooner the better! Practice multiple times a day to allow for lots of learning opportunities.
Be realistic when choosing a targeted time. Many adults find wearing masks uncomfortable and it takes some getting used to. Don’t hold your child to a higher standard than you would hold yourself. When shaping behavior, it is easier to start small and work your way up. This may mean only wearing a mask for 5 seconds before allowing your child to remove it. Once this small amount of time is able to be completed successfully, you can increase the desired time by small increments such as 10-30 seconds. The amount of time tolerated wearing a mask will vary depending on your child. Try placing a mask on your child and time how long he/she tolerates it before taking it off or engaging in problem behavior. Then choose a time slightly shorter than this to begin with.
Choose a reinforcer. When wanting to increase a desired behavior such as mask wearing, it is important to have a predetermined reinforcer to motivate your child to wear the mask in the appropriate way for the desired duration of time. The reinforcer can change in the moment based on the child’s preferences, but should be chosen prior to asking the child to put the mask on. Waiting to choose a reinforcer until after problem behavior or refusal occurs should be avoided. An example could be it’s time to wear your mask. After you wear your mask for 2 minutes and keep your hands down, you can watch Bubble Guppies, have a cookie, play with Moon Sand, etc. Make sure to withhold the reinforcer until your child wears the mask for the desired time without engaging in problem behavior before making the reinforcer available. This may take a few tries and may be quite a struggle at the beginning.
Use a phrase or directive that allows your child to know that it is time to put a mask on such as “Time to wear your mask.” Use the same phrase each time so your child knows what is expected when he/she hears the directive and knows that reinforcement will follow once he/she wears the mask for the desired time.
When practicing mask wearing, choose times/activities that will mirror the natural environment when your child will have to wear the mask, such as walking in from the car, walking in hallways, waiting in a chair in a Doctor’s office, etc.
It may be helpful to use pictures, social stories and a timer for children with fewer receptive skills. Check out our example of practicing how to wear a mask appropriately here.
Remember everything gets easier with practice and reinforcement! So start now!