How will kids learn language skills when masks cover mouths? Focus on eyes, tone of voice, and emotions

LA is requiring the use of face masks in public places again, including for kids in classrooms. Some parents worry that school mask mandates might be affecting their child’s social skills and language skills because they can’t see facial expressions.

However, University of Louisville professor Judith Danovitch argues that masks can present a learning opportunity for kids. Her research focuses on the cognitive and social development of children.

She says masks can benefit children’s language development: "Seeing a person's mouth is one thing that can contribute to understanding what a person is saying. But it turns out that we actually rely on a lot of other types of cues, including what they're doing with their eyes. What shape their eyes are taking. What they're looking at with their eyes. As well as other kinds of verbal cues, like the tone of voice that they are using.”

Danovitch says masking is a great opportunity for children to practice paying attention to subtle, tough-to-detect communication cues. For example, instead of wondering whether someone is smiling or frowning under their mask, kids can practice directly asking someone how they’re feeling.  

Teachers can help kids learn to communicate better too. “For a preschool teacher, this is a great opportunity to talk about 'emotion words' and 'how can you describe the way you're feeling? How can other people describe the way they are feeling? What might cause them to feel that way?’” she explains. “And we know from research that children who have a better command of these types of emotion words and use this language also develop better social skills.”

Masks can help kids practice self-control as well, especially when it comes to physical habits. “For kids who like to bite their nails or pick their noses, it's actually a great chance for them to exert the self control they need to maybe break that habit,” Danovitch says.



  • Judith Danovitch - associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Louisville