What does the research say? Masks and emotion inferences

For the past 8 months, we’ve been wearing masks in public to protect ourselves and those around us. As schools and daycare centers started to reopen, many parents have wondered whether seeing adults and peers wearing masks will impact their child’s ability to notice emotions.

Luckily, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to learn about this. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just published research on this very question in the journal PLOS ONE. Dr. Ashley Ruba showed pictures of sad, angry and scared faces to 81 children between the ages of 7 and 13 years. In one third of the photos, the models’ eyes were covered with sunglasses. In another third of the photos, the models’ mouths were covered with a surgical mask. In the remaining third of the photos, the full face was visible.

Children identified emotions most accurately when the faces were uncovered, but the difference in accuracy was small and masks did not interfere with emotion identification any more than sunglasses did. The younger children were just as accurate as the older children.

The study authors pointed out that making inferences about emotions in real life is different from looking at 2-dimensional still photographs in a lab setting. When interacting with mask-wearing peers and teachers at school or daycare, children also have access to context, gestures, and tone of voice, which all provide important clues about emotions. And remember that children have plenty of time around unmasked faces at home!

So overall, good news! Masks keep us safe, and they don’t stop children from recognizing emotions. And whether or not we’re in a global pandemic, it’s important to teach children about emotions from a young age. Here are some tips from the KidTalk team:

  • Read books about feelings: Stories provide powerful learning opportunities for children. They provide language that children can use to name their own and others’ feelings, and start conversations about how to respond to our big feelings. The Huffington Post has a list of 35 books to teach kids about emotions, and BookRiot has a list of books about emotions for all ages.

  • Make it a game! Take turns acting out different scenarios and feelings, and guessing the emotion. More about this activity from Perkins School for the Blind.

  • Check out these simple yet powerful tips from the National Association for the Education of Young Children for building social and emotional skills at home.

Tell us in the comments: What are your favorite ways to teach children about emotions?