This article by Leanne Page, BCBA was originally published at ABADesk. 

Face masks have quickly become an everyday part of life. Depending on where you live, they are either strongly encouraged or required by law. Face masks aren’t the most comfortable things and take some getting used to, so we need to find positive ways to help our kids wear them successfully.

All the tips here use a powerful tool backed by oodles of behavior science: positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means that something is added following a behavior that increases the likelihood of that behavior happening more in the future. Basically, it’s a reward that works. The reward can be a high five, a smile, a hug, a statement of appreciation. Here’s an easy read about how to find reinforcers for your child.

Back to the topic at hand: mask wearing and positive reinforcement!


Here are a few tips to make the face mask more tolerable:

  1. Try different styles to see what your child prefers. There are some that tie behind the head like a surgeon might wear, elastic ear bands, cloth ear bands, you name it. Try out as many as you possibly can to see which is most tolerable for your child.

  2. Pair it with something your child already likes. Pairing is a research-based behavior tool where you pair together something unfun with something you know your kid likes. You can learn more about it here and here. For masks, get a fabric that is your child’s favorite color or has their favorite character on it. Make the mask itself more reinforcing.
  3. Pair wearing the mask with their favorite things. When practicing at home, let them listen to their favorite music or watch a favorite show while wearing the mask. This is using pairing to make the act of wearing the mask more reinforcing.
  4. Give positive reinforcement for wearing the mask properly. You can use another legit tool called the premack principle. “First wear your mask nicely, then you may ___.” Give them a reward for wearing the mask. Learn more about the premack principle here.

Is your child still not a fan of wearing a mask? The last thing we want is for this to be a battle. If we argue over the mask or force them to wear it OR ELSE- what’s going to happen? They are going to dislike the mask even MORE! Let’s focus on meeting our kids where they are now and using positive tools to build them up to get where they need to be.

Many childcare centers already require kids to wear a mask all day. We are still anxiously waiting to hear what schools are going to require this fall. With those things in mind, what is the goal length of time for your child to wear a mask properly? Probably 2 or more hours at a time and maybe 6 or more hours a day! This is a LONG time! But the good news is that a little thing called shaping can get us there without the struggle.

Shaping in behavior speak: reinforcing successive approximations to the target behavior.

Shaping defined for us parents: rewarding the baby steps (in order) along the way as we work toward a goal.

We figure out the starting place by noticing where the child is at now. We know the goal. Now we just add in the baby steps and provide positive reinforcement for our kids at each step. When they are successful at one step, we raise the bar a little and keep moving forward.

So how long can your child wear a mask now? 1 minute? 1 hour? Not sure? Try it out and see. We’ve got timers & stopwatches built into our watches, phones, Alexa- whatever. It’s really easy to time them.  This is your starting point.

Add a little bit of time to your starting point. Give your child a reward for wearing the mask for that long. Did they do it? No? Then stay here and try again later to give a reward for wearing the mask for this amount of time. If they did it successfully, add a little more time next practice round and the reinforcement comes for making it just a little longer with the mask.

Get your own blank copy of My Mask Wearing Plan by clicking on the image below!

We also have a reward chart you can use with your plan. Don’t forget the most important part- positive reinforcement!

Try it out and let us know how it goes!

Ready for some more easy to use strategies to save your sanity? Check out our Quick Wins Series for moms! 

This article was created by Parenting with ABA for ABADesk. ABADesk provides intelligent data collection systems for BCBAs all designed by a BCBA! Check out their website & demo. I think you’ll be impressed!