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Face mask facial expressions - can you read them?

With the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, it appears that face masks will be part of our daily lives for some time yet. While wearing a face mask is becoming second nature for many Victorians, it can make social communication more difficult.

Babies and young children look to their caregivers’ faces to learn how to respond to their environment. Similarly, children with language difficulties often use a person’s facial expressions and body language to help make sense of talking. With masks covering up to 70% of the important areas of the face for emotional expression, many parents are understandably worried that masks will disrupt their child’s emotional learning and their ability to understand and respond to social cues.

The Research!

Indeed, Frontiers in Psychology did a recent study and found that when people were shown photographs of faces with masks, they were less confident and less accurate in recognising emotions, with many people misinterpreting the emotions ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ as ‘neutral’. Plose One had another study involving children, found that masks made it difficult, but not impossible, for them to accurately identify facial expressions.

Helpful Strategies When Wearing Masks

Fortunately, we show our emotions with more than just our mouths, with our eyes, tone of voice and body language all helping to convey how we are feeling. Try using the following strategies to help your child interpret your emotions:

  • Emphasise your emotions through your eyes and eyebrows - even without masks, it’s easy to tell the difference between a real and fake smile

  • Use more body language and gestures, for example, a ‘thumbs up’ to show you are pleased

  • Use words to describe how you are feeling instead of relying on non-verbal communication

  • Be more expressive using your voice.

  • try using sign language (see below).

Check out National Centre for Pyramid Model Innovation’s tip sheet for more ideas on teaching children to understand emotions behind masks.

7 Auslan Signs for Masked Communication

ABC Australia have put together a YouTube clip to help people communicate their feelings when wearing a mask, and some essential signs you can use to help deaf people understand your message. We particularly like the sign for I’m smiling!


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