6 ways to tailor mask lessons for students with emotional disturbance

You can't assume all students understand why they need to wear a mask
By: | April 1, 2021
(AdobeStock/denys_kuvaiev)(AdobeStock/denys_kuvaiev)

In its report, ‘ED COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools, which was released in mid-February,” the U.S. Education Department stated:

“Schools should carefully consider appropriate responses to students with disabilities whose disability may impact their ability to wear a mask, thus ensuring that students with disabilities continue to receive FAPE. For example, if a student’s difficulty wearing a mask is related to an emotional disturbance or sensory disability, the school’s response should be different from a response for a student without a disability.”

“I think the overarching idea is that for safety we want all students to wear their masks appropriately, which would be covering the mouth and nose and keeping it on throughout the day,” said Rebecca Heaton Hall, a school attorney with Weiss Burkardt Kramer in Pittsburgh. “But certain students, in particular students with disabilities, may have difficulty doing that. That could be a student with a significant behavioral need qualified under the Emotional Disturbance category.”

Many students need additional support and instruction on how to wear their masks appropriately throughout the school year, Heaton Hall said. “There are many ways the school team could reinforce appropriate mask wearing for students with disabilities, including students with behavioral needs,” she said.

Here are a few suggestions, including making changes to individualized behavior support plans.

1. Don’t assume. You can’t assume all students understand why they need to wear a mask, the appropriate way to wear a mask, the appropriate length of time to keep it on, and that they can’t just pull it down all the time, Heaton Hall said. “We can’t assume they automatically know, or are being taught at home,” she said. “Really break it down for kids.”

2. Provide systems-level supports. Give explicit instructions and directions on how to wear a mask to the entire school building, Heaton Hall said. Utilize modeling, with all teachers and staff wearing their masks appropriately.


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x “Overall the districts I work with have had a lot of success having kids wear their masks throughout the day,” she said. “They’ve done that through systems level supports, through modeling, and through explicit directions and instructions.”

3. Give explicit instructions via multiple methods. Talk about the proper way to wear a mask during announcements at the beginning of the day, through buildingwide assemblies, and through classroom-specific announcements, Heaton Hall said. Remind students why and how to wear their masks during these times.

ED shared a lot of information about signage throughout the building, Heaton Hall said. For instance, they suggest making sure that any words on the signs are in all languages applicable to the building and to include not just written words but also pictures of hand washing, mask wearing, and all the procedures students need to comply with.

4. Offer positive reinforcement. Using positive reinforcement is another method to encourage students to wear masks, Heaton Hall said. Both tangible reinforcement, such as giving rewards, or intangible reinforcement of sharing verbal praise work well for students with ED.

5. Conduct an IEP team meeting. If you notice a student with ED having a hard time adhering to building code and protocols, the IEP team needs to come together and conduct an IEP meeting to decide what the student needs, Heaton Hall said.

“Ultimately it’s an individualized decision which has to be specific to that student and a decision made by the IEP team based on that student’s particular needs,” she said.

6. Incorporate provisions into a behavior support plan. For a student with ED who is having difficulty wearing his mask, you might incorporate provisions into this individualized behavior support plan to help him with appropriate mask wearing, Heaton Hall said.

For example, incorporate different mask breaks throughout the day in addition to what the general population is receiving, she said. Give the student a break card that will allow him to go take a mask break when he holds it up.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.