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The vast majority of parents want their kids to be kind to others, and many children have become more empathetic after seeing the world’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. But younger children still might struggle to interact with peers and teachers once they return to in-person schooling after studying at home.
A few obstacles lie in the way of kids’ ability to comfortably communicate. One is a literal barrier between themselves and others: face masks. Although masks offer critical protection against disease, they limit what we see of others’ emotional cues and inhibit our ability to identify them. With faces partially covered, we’re denied important social cues such as smiling, smirking, and frowning. Children are also less able to lip-read with face masks. Because of that, younger children who use lip-reading to learn language might suffer delays in their aural processing and verbal progression.
Another recent obstacle to children’s social development is the long-term lack of in-person communication. Zoom classes can transfer knowledge, but they can’t accurately replicate the classroom experience. Therefore, kids might find it more difficult to identify friends, socialize at school, and advocate for themselves in the face of conflict or bullying.
Even socially adept children might still struggle during this unique school year. Perhaps they missed out on last year’s preschool or kindergarten classes, too. This can leave them at a disadvantage when trying to adjust to “normal” life in school settings.
As a parent or caregiver, it’s natural to be concerned about whether your kids can care for themselves and show the same care for others. A few key techniques can help the children in your life make an easier transition to face-to-face learning environments:
1. Brush up on the basics.
In Robert Fulghum’s bestselling book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” he posited that the general rules of life were laid out during the first year of school: share, play fair, clean up, wash your hands, and raise your hand (without jumping up and down).
Most caregivers would agree with this list, especially after recalling their own upbringings. However, don’t assume that children will always remember basic social and hygiene manners. Talk about those behaviors frequently with your little ones, even if you think you’re going overboard.
Last year, I home-schooled two of my grandkids and focused on proper responses after a burp or mistake. My goal for them was to learn that what can be cute or funny at home might raise eyebrows at school and elsewhere.
2. Teach kids how to express emotions while wearing masks.
You often can spot someone smiling even if they’re wearing a mask, as genuine smiles expand into the eyes and eyebrows. Other times, people tend to drop their eyes, appearing to “disconnect” when wearing masks. Practice different expressions with your kids while wearing face masks to guess the emotions you’re conveying, then extend the game to see who can maintain eye contact the longest.
There are many other ways to gamify masking too, such as working on speaking clearly or brainstorming ways to compliment another person’s mask. Get creative and go all-in.
3. Role-play ways to make new friends.
Role-playing can serve as an important practice for your child and provides a safe space to try a variety of conversation starters. For example, imagine that you’re sitting on a bench alone. Ask your child what they could say to start talking and maybe make a friend.
If your child is a little older, you can offer strategies that you use as an adult when trying to mix and mingle with your peers. Touch on reading social cues (like waiting until an animated group discussion ends) before cutting in. You’ll be surprised at how readily kids understand what you’re saying — and you’ll beam with pride when your child tells you how they used the technique at school.
4. Emphasize social skills throughout the school year.
As the school year progresses, don’t stop practicing socializing and manners with your kids. October through the holidays might be when your child needs your advice the most. Remember, adults know that making or renewing friendships takes time. Kids, on the other hand, might not.
But what happens if your child just can’t find that magical buddy known as a best friend? Or worse, lost a former best friend to someone else? Stay positive and discuss the situation with them. Explore extracurricular activities, programs, and clubs where they can meet peers with similar interests.
The pandemic still controls many aspects of daily life, from how we work to the masks we wear in social spaces. It doesn’t, however, have to control your child’s ability to socialize confidently, cultivate meaningful friendships, or act with kindness — skills that are perhaps more important than ever.
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