Tools to Create Connected School Communities Even When Masks are Worn

by Katie Raher, PhD

I was due for my TB test update to work in schools, so I reluctantly made my way to medical offices to get that taken care of. Even though I’ve been out and about a bit and seen people with masks here and there, this was the first time I’ve been in a semi-small space with everyone wearing masks.

It reminded me of being in a classroom, and I started to think about how this may be our reality in schools in the not-so-far-off future. Now I know that every school and district is in the planning stages for this fall, and none of us know exactly how things will look with regard to masks. Will the kids be wearing masks? The educators? All day? Part of the day? Who knows?

No matter how it turns out, I’ve got a couple ideas to help!

These very teachable tools have to do with how we communicate and tune into feelings so we create connected communities in our schools, even with masks on. 

Tool #1: Be extra intentional and obvious about friendly signals.

Now, as part of the Kimochis Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program, a vital tool we teach at the start of the school year and nurture all year long is friendly signals. These are the verbal and nonverbal messages we send to others that convey friendlieness and include our hellos, good mornings, smiles, waves, head nods, fist bumps, kind eyes, and many other cross-cultural variations. We talk about how friendly faces make for friendly places.

Friendly signals ensure that every child, and every adult, feels welcome and like they matter in schools. Friendly signals are also a significant part of trauma-sensitive schools, as they help in creating a sense of social and emotional safety for children (and again the adults too). They can also be one part of work to break down racism in our schools. Whereas Black children and educators often report experiencing microaggressions, from receiving fewer friendly signals than white members of the school community to their names being consistently mispronounced during greetings and other times of the day, we can take action to break down our implicit biases and very intentionally use friendly signals and honor correct name pronunciations in a way that makes every Black child and colleague know that they matter and are worthy of so much love and connection.

While I’ve hopefully sold you on the power of friendly signals (not that they don’t sell themselves), wearing masks leaves us with a potential dilemma. Half of the cues from a friendly face will be covered by face masks.

(Now I’m not going to get into the debate about face masks, as I understand that my wearing some protective gear will be vitally important for my students and colleagues of color, who are being disproportionately affected by COVID. And I’m not going to lie – protective gear may be very important for me, as someone with chronic disease.)

So, I’ve got some ideas for how to make sure we still see the many benefits of friendly signals even when masks are covering half of faces...

Be sure to add more noticeable components to your friendly signals. This can look like an increased use of verbal friendly signals, such as hellos, good mornings, and correctly pronounced names. This can also look like gigantic smiles that fully lift your cheeks and give your eyes a gentle squeeze and ensure that a sparkle comes through. This could also look like elbow bumps. Start practicing now, and when school returns, talk about these things with your colleagues and students. Have a friendly signal challenge, so that all are actively involved with being more intentional about spreading friendly signals, even while making sure we don’t spread COVID. How many creative ways can you and your people come up with to send loud and clear friendly signals even when masks are present?

Tool #2: Tune into eyes more than ever!

Our facial expressions play a huge role in communicating how we feel, and reading others’ facial expressions plays such a huge role in our capacity to feel empathy and connect with others in a way that makes situations better. In Kimochis, we always advocate for tuning into the nonverbal communication in faces because of how important this is for nurturing positive relationships.

Because mouths, noses, and cheeks often give us tremendous information about how people feel, masks that cover these parts of our faces once again pose a bit of a dilemma. In good news, we can practice our resilience, and we can stay connected with others by tuning in extra to the wonderful clues that the eyes (and forehead and area between the eyes) give us.

The first most important step will be for us, as the educators, to start practicing this all summer. Whenever you go to the grocery store, take a walk, or do anything else that allows you to practice reading facial expressions without the help of the bottom half of the face, get curious and start noticing the subtleties. If you are with people you know, go ahead and check in with them with this phrase we also can teach to kids, “You look upset/sad/etc. Are you feeling upset/sad/etc?” You can even have a discussion about what you’re working on learning with the people you check in with. We all have some learning to do in this department, so it’s a great discussion to be had.

In addition to working on our own fine tuning in the social awareness department, we can also help our students refine their skills in this area once school returns. Play Feeling Detective games that allow kids to tune into eyes. You can simply have kids make feeling faces with their masks on, and then play a simple guessing game. Or you can grab the new free Kimochis Feeling Flash Cards that just came out, create and tape on half-circle cutouts that will act as "masks" for the Kimochis feeling faces (use painters tape or poster putty to avoid the paper ripping), and have kids play a guessing game with the cards (after you let kids practice with the whole feeling pillow faces first, so they have something to build upon). 

You can discuss which feelings appear the same in the eyes and what other clues the body might give to help you in your feeling detective work. After playing any of the games, you can of course dig into thinking about helpful ways to respond when you notice someone with the feelings that are guessed.

Want to practice your Feeling Detective skills? Check out this picture my family took when we went cherry picking a few weeks ago. Can you tell what each person feels? (Clue: One person feels annoyed that I asked them to take this picture.)

So, what tools will you try? What other SEL ideas do you have to help ensure meaningful connection and welcoming environments in schools, even if wearing masks is part of our reality this fall?

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