Masks, a brake on learning: “Children of the pandemic find it more difficult to speak”

Nonverbal communication is the oldest form of human communication. Even before we learned to express ourselves with words, bodily expression was the main tool for conveying an emotion, an order or a warning. It was in fact a crucial cognitive process without which the transition to verbal language would not have been possible. Now, after two years of a pandemic in which masks have become the main face accessory, the effects it causes in the learning of the little ones interacting with a half-covered face.

From birth, a child begins to imitate the actions, gestures and even emotions he sees in others, through those who are baptized as mirror neurons by its discoverer, the Italian neurobiologist Giacomo Rizzolati, in 1996. What we have seen over the past two years is that the mask is an obstacle in this channel which extends between two people, in this case between a child and an adult, which involves the risk of delaying the learning or development of a language at a key age.

“We see that the children of the pandemic, those who are now two or three years old, they find it harder to start talking and, if before the development of the language was already consolidated at two years, now we see that it is delayed at three”, he explains to 20 minutes, Sylvie Perezprofessor at the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC).

However, Pérez insists on not attributing everything solely to the pandemic, since it is a trend that professionals have already perceived since before the health crisis. “We have already started to see it because there are few discussions with the children, there is a lot of communication with screens and images, etc. And I think that a job that we could have done precisely , because we have already felt it, has broken, ”says the psychologist and also a teacher in a school.

the lost expressions

Joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear… There are more than forty facial muscles that stimulate facial expressions. Expressions that now hide and often get lost behind a mask. “It prevents the child from seeing the other person’s mouth. Although they do not wear it, because if they are under six years old it is not necessary, they lack adult models. The normal thing is that they copy the movement of the lips or the tongue while speaking, and now they don’t see all that. So they copy the words from what they hear, but not from what they see,” says Pérez.

In addition, it must be taken into account that the youngest children have only seen the majority of adults with a mask and have no memory of a different context. “All the reference adult figures who are not the parents were seen with a mask. I saw how they even drew people wearing masks or when they showed a movie in class they told you in amazement that it was something old”Perez said.

“All reference adult figures who are not parents were seen with a mask”

This, ultimately, also hinders the work of the teachers themselves, who manage to adopt strategies that reduce this effect. “They don’t see the expressiveness of your face, they don’t listen to you as well, and they can’t read your lips to learn. If you’re angry or if you’re happy, they don’t notice it the same way. When they cry and you go to them, they only see the eyes. To tell stories, for example, many times we put on a transparent screen and take off our mask, because if they don’t, they don’t understand you the same way,” he says. 20 minutes Christina EarthPreschool teacher in a school in Madrid.

“Teachers also learned strategies, like vocalize more, speak more slowly, move around, pick up objects or use visual aids. I think at the beginning it was more difficult for them to understand us, ”explains Pérez, assuring that the little ones are starting to adapt.

A reversible problem

However, it is not something permanent or irreversible. “It’s salvageable. he has a solutionbut you have to be aware of it, ”explains educational psychologist Sylvie Pérez.

“Yes, it’s true that it’s something that especially harms those who already have a previous learning problem, but Nor is it necessary to convey the message that masks are bad or that this is a lost generation, Well, that’s not true,” he said. Quique Bassat, epidemiologist and coordinator of the working group on the reopening of the school of the Spanish Association of Pediatrics (AEP). The pediatrician recognizes that, especially for the youngest, it has been “an additional barrier” which “has not helped them at all”, so he defends that removing the mask “gradually” will help them return to normal.

“It’s recoverable, it has a solution, but you have to be aware of it”

Bassat advocates removing masks also inside classrooms, now that the pandemic situation is far from that of the first months. Moreover, it ensures that the case of the schools can be monitored and used as “starting point” for carrying out a “multi-level strategy” through which to remove “little by little” the masks.

A shield against teenagers’ lack of self-esteem

We should also not ignore the effects that using masks can have on older children. “We find that now that the masks can be removed in the yard, there are many children who do not take it off. As soon as we do a physical activity, or theater, or in short an outdoor activity in which the masks could be removed, there are many students who do not remove it”, explains teacher Sylvie Pérez.

According to him, many children, and especially adolescents with more social difficulties or who tend to isolate themselves, have turned to masks as a tool to protect against any insecurity. “It’s a bit like children who always wear a balaclava or a cap. The mask has not ceased to be a barrier in relation to the environment which has done them good. highlighted.

Although this is an effect that likewise does not attract much attention, Pérez insists that it must be taken into account so that school psychologists and teachers can work on areas of reinforcement such as acceptance of one’s own image. “It’s about self-esteem and it gives you a sense of protection.; but not of health (there are also those who have been very aware of this aspect for having suffered difficult situations in their environment) but of refuge in their relationships with others”, he concludes.

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