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Supporting Children with Sensory Sensitivity during COVID


Preschool children wearing masks

Friday, January 22, 2021

​Boys Town Partners with Omaha Public Schools and Munroe-Meyer Institute

​​​Obscu​red mouths. Muffled voices. Concealed emotions. Masks have challenged everyone's ability to communicate with and understand others.

Most adults can overcome some of these obstacles by reading other social cues. However, for young children, especially those with communication delays or sensory-processing difficulties, masks are an unwelcome barrier when trying to express themselves and comprehend the world around them.

For students in the preschool program at Boys Town National Research Hospital®, masks are required. Easing their discomfort and encouraging proper mask-wearing techniques require a combination of patience, understanding and positive reinforcement. 

According to Kate Kaiser, lead teacher at the preschool, staff members were pleasantly surprised to see most students were ready to wear their masks when in-person school resumed after an extended period of remote learning. Many of the preschoolers are deaf or hard of hearing, and the mask's straps can be irritating when children already have hearing aids, cochlear implant processors and eyeglass frames around their ears. Some of the children also have sensory-processing disorders or difficulties, making them overly sensitive to the texture, scent or pressure of face masks. These unpleasant sensations can magnify their distress and overwhelm their bodies, leading to meltdowns and mask removal.

Kaiser credits parents for teaching their little ones about the importance of masks and getting them used to wearing them. But when a child struggles or has a bad day, Kaiser and her team are grateful for the collaboration and training support they receive from their partners at Omaha Public Schools and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Munroe-Meyer Institute.

Omaha's Experts Join Forces for Optimal Outcomes

Occupational therapists from the Munroe-Meyer Institute provide education-related occupational and physical therapy services to Omaha Public Schools students who attend the Boys Town Preschool Program. The therapists also collaborate and lead specialized training sessions with staff, which is an invaluable benefit during these times. 

Christina Edelbrock, a board-certified pediatric occupational therapist at UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute, led a collaborative coaching session where she shared ideas and strategies to help preschool staff calm, reassure and guide children who become overwhelmed, frustrated or frightened by masks.

“In this pandemic, kids in general are more anxious and scared of things they don't understand, especially children who are deaf and hard of hearing," explained Edelbrock. “They rely on facial expressions, but masks hide that. So, there is increased anxiety because things and people look different."

To eliminate some of the fear factor, the preschool uses clear masks designed especially for individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, allowing teachers and parents to communicate using facial expressions. The masks also make lip reading possible, which is critical for the children who are just learning to listen, talk or sign. 

Additional strategies that have helped children with sensory difficulties become more comfortable with masks include:  

  • Desensitizing kids by having them hold, feel and press the masks against their skin and face
  • Normalizing the situation by putting masks on stuffed animals and other favorite toys
  • Reading social stories and using visual aids to walk students through why we wear masks
  • Creating routines to increase familiarity and limit impulsive reactions (For example, every morning students exchange the masks they wear from home with school masks. At day's end, they put their school masks in a baggie to be washed and put back on their masks from home.) 
  • Using lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement (reassuring words, high fives and thumbs up) to celebrate progress and reinforce expectations

“We know not all the children will be able to wear their masks for the full three-hour preschool day, so we coach them through the moments when they're having a hard time," said Kaiser. “We use a lot of visual supports, like timers and picture cues, to help them understand the expectations. A lot of positive reinforcement and encouragement goes a long way."

Both Kaiser and Edelbrock agree that the best things teachers and parents can do for children who have special sensory sensitivities is to show patience, empathy and understanding.

The Boys Town Preschool is a five-day-a-week early ch​ildhood program that provides comprehensive educational programming to children ages 3 to 5 who are deaf or hard of​ hearing and includes neighborhood friends who are hearing. Highly trained educators and specialists provide intensive differentiated instruction focused on developing listening, spoken language and sign language skills.

The preschool is located in the Lied Learning and Technology Center, at 30th and Dodge. To learn more, call (531) 355-5000.