The Face Mask Challenge: How Can We Motivate Individuals With Special Needs To Wear Face Masks?

By Francine Holguin, BCBA

Face masks have become our new and required accessory in public, and whether we like it or not, this trend is probably not disappearing anytime soon. Given this reality, it has become increasingly more important to teach individuals with special needs to wear and tolerate face masks so they can safely participate in their communities. Check out the tips below for making masks a little more exciting, a little more comfortable, and hopefully, a lot more possible! 

Make the mask comfortable and fun!

First and foremost, design the face mask so it is breathable and comfortable. Select a fabric that is soft or favored by your child (no scratchy edges), not too thick, and not too tight. To increase comfort, you may consider using a bandana instead of a mask, or replacing those tight elastic ear loops with a tie-on design around the head or fabric loops. Once you select the shape, make the mask fun and have your child participate in the design. They can select the colors, a fun pattern, or add a favorite character. And if possible, create multiple masks so choice can be incorporated and they have options for “accessorizing” when it’s time to wear a mask!

Practice, practice, practice!

Wearing a mask takes practice! A key to building a new skill is to experience repeated successes, and when the skill is as difficult as wearing a face mask that feels odd, uncomfortable, and maybe even aversive, we’ll need to incorporate the following essentials: frequent and repeated successful attempts, beginning with short trials and gradually increasing, and effective reinforcement.  But how do we do this?

When you practice, give your child Disneyland! What’s Disneyland? Disneyland represents “all the fun you can imagine!” When practicing, have your child’s favorite TV show playing; have their tablets in their hands; blow bubbles in the background; model stuffed animals wearing face masks—anything your child loves (and big bonus if the fun keeps their hands busy)!  By doing this, you’re pairing the facemask with positive and good things. Disneyland comes with the mask, and if the mask comes off too soon, Disneyland gets paused too. (Disneyland Warning: avoid food and heavy physical activity—the facemask makes these activities a little challenging).  


When practicing at home, it is important this is a positive experience, so you’ll need to start the teaching process where your child is successful. Can they tolerate other people wearing masks? Can they hold the mask in their hands or over their mouth? Can they wear the mask around their neck? Can they wear it over their mouth? Can they now wear it over their mouth and nose? As your child is successful, move to the next step, and remember that timing is everything with masks! Begin by wearing it for 10 seconds (or even less if needed). Then move to 20, 30, 60, and continue to increase gradually.  Again—it is recommended to have short, frequent, and successful practice runs rather than forcing longer durations that may end in frustration or challenging behaviors. You may also consider adding a visual or timer so your child knows when they can take the mask off, or teaching them to respond to cues like “mask up” or “mask down.”


Once you are successful at home,
take the practice outside and in safe locations. Try the backyard, a short walk
in the street, an empty park, or a car ride. Remember to start with short time
periods and increase with success! Once you’re ready for the community, start
with a location that will result in fun or a favorite item for your child to
help build that motivation!

Celebrate the successes with reinforcement! 

Whether you are practicing for 10 seconds at home, or you have successfully made it to the community, celebrate every win! Have a favorite item or activity available that can be provided to your child after they have successfully worn the mask for the expected time. 

This item or activity should be super valuable to them, something that can be immediately delivered after every practice trial, available only for wearing a mask (not something they have access to all day), and provided explicitly for wearing the mask. Consistent reinforcement will be the key to building this behavior!

Hopefully these tips can help your child in joining the face mask movement, and as always, it is important to consult your BCBA regarding specific recommendations for your child if challenging behaviors are associated with building this skill. Best of luck, health, and safety out there!

Please note: this article serves as a general suggestion to parents, who should ultimately follow CDC guidelines regarding the appropriate measures surrounding face masks. Kadiant does not recommend face masks for children under the age of two.