3 ways to address performance deficits in mask wearing

When a student elects not to wear a mask, reinforcing compliance through incentives may help, says a professor of special education.

Having a skill deficit means you can’t do something, whereas having a performance deficit means you choose not to. For example, a student skill deficit may be, “I can’t perform algebra,” whereas a performance deficit would be, “I’m electing not to do algebra,” explains Joseph Ryan, a professor of special education at Clemson University.

If a student is not wearing a mask when required because of a skill deficit, teach and reinforce the appropriate behavior, he says. For example, students with sensory issues may need to build up a tolerance for having the mask on for an extended period.

If the reason is performance based—for example, a high school student who simply says, “I don’t want to wear it”—put in place an incentive so that the student will buy into it, Ryan suggests.

Try the following to address students’ performance deficits and get them to wear their masks.

1. Explain the importance.

Social distancing is not good enough to prevent the risk of virus transmission in a close classroom, Ryan says. Convince students that even if they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19, they may be exposing family members and other people that may be very susceptible to it. Base the rationale you use to explain it to them on the students’ age level and cognitive abilities, he said. Then give them the time they need to understand.

“We had to go over those lessons continuously for a month before [students] understood the concept behind why they were doing it,” says Ryan of the students in his LIFE program, a program for young adults with disabilities.

2. Reinforce desirable behaviors.

Even if students understand why they need to wear a mask, you may still have to earn buy-in by reinforcing desirable behaviors.

For example, have elementary school students design their masks with their favorite sports team or superheroes. Hold competitions for who has the best masks. Have an administrator go around to all the classrooms and offer the class with the highest level of compliance a pizza party, an ice cream social, or some other sort of celebration. On an individual level, if you catch a student being good and wearing her mask, reinforce that behavior by giving her a lottery ticket for a raffle you set up. Or add it as a category on the student’s daily report for parents.

“You don’t want to be punitive,” Ryan says. “You don’t want to go around stopping people like cops. You want to reinforce those doing it appropriately.”

3. Make it fun. There are countless ways you can incentivize students for engaging in the appropriate behavior of wearing their masks when required, but make it fun, Ryan says. “We’re in the middle of pandemic. Nothing is fun. I can’t play with my buddy at recess, I can’t eat in the lunchroom. Make it as fun as possible, as much of a game as possible.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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