Getting Your Child with ADHD or Autism to Wear a Mask

Getting Your Kiddo to Wear That Pesky Mask

The back to school bells have begun ringing, and with them come a myriad of changes as teachers and students learn how to navigate current health risks. 

Even if a child is set to experience school in person, many will be expected to wear masks throughout the school day. While virtual schooling may be an option for your child, they still may be expected to wear a mask in most community settings. A simple grocery store trip, a well-visit to the doctor, or a stroll through the zoo can all pose significant challenges with the new societal expectation of mask-wearing in many places.

Some children have no problem adding a mask as a new daily wardrobe staple.

...but what if your child refuses? 

Tantrums. Protests. Kicking. Screaming.

Sound familiar?

If your child is one of the many who aren’t as thrilled to sport a mask, you are not alone! This is a common struggle that has been shared by many a parent during the past few months. In an effort to support our parents, we have gathered several evidence-based strategies that can help improve the mask-wearing process for your family. Take a look below!

Face masks for kids and how to buy them, according to experts

Make it personal

When you started wearing a mask, did you just pick up the first one you saw, or did you consider your preferences? Most of us tend to be more invested in activities, even those that are less preferred, when we have input on the front end of things. Gain buy-in from your child by including them in the purchase process. 

The market is currently filled with a vast array of mask patterns, colors, and styles! From favorite cartoon characters to sports to silly sayings, there are many ways to incorporate a child’s interest with masks that are currently for sale. 

Involving children in personalizing their own masks can also be a great way to get them on board the mask train. One example of this could be tie-dying a plain white mask. Other kids may be more excited about the idea of adding monograms, jewels, or other embellishments. Truly, the opportunities for imagination and creativity are boundless!

When considering personal preference, it is also important to consider the fit and feel of a mask. Some children who are resistant to a typical paper-like medical mask may find that a silky smooth neck gaiter is more comfortable. Likewise, some masks fit closer to the nose than others. Finding the best fit for your child may require a bit of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to change things up if the current mask style is consistently causing sensory problems.

Best Reusable Cloth Face Masks for Kids Available Online |

Build-in choice

Once you’ve found a way to personalize your child’s mask selection, find ways to offer a choice on a regular basis during mask-wearing opportunities.

Sometimes this choice can look like offering 2-3 masks to choose from. (“Would you like to wear your dinosaur mask or your lego mask?”)  

Once a mask is selected, another choice can be offered as to when they will put it on. (“Would you like to put your mask on in the car, or wait until we get out?”)

A choice can also be offered as to how they will put it on. (“Would you like mom or dad to help you put your mask on?”)

You’ll notice that, while options are given in the examples above, the ultimate result is the same. Regardless of what choices are made, the presented options still end with the child wearing the mask! When options are provided, your child can feel in control of the situation by being given autonomy within appropriate limits. 

Set expectations

Before you simply tell your child to put on a mask, set them up for success by being explicit and clear about your expectations. 

Let your child know when they will need to wear their mask. (“While we are in Target, you will need to keep your mask on.”)

Let them know when they can remove their mask. (“When we get back to the car, you can take your mask off.”)

Let them know about how long they will be expected to keep their mask on. (“This will be a quick/little longer trip.”)

It also can be helpful to make clear an appropriate expectation for how they should communicate with you if they are feeling uncomfortable or need to take a break. (“While we’re at the zoo, if you are having a hard time with your mask or need a break, first tell me, then we can find a spot to take a minute mask break.”)

Add a visual

For both old and young alike, some directions, if simply spoken, “go in one ear and right out the other.” To make expectations a little more clear and readily remembered, a visual support can make a great difference. 

A first/then board is a prime example of a useful visual support for this type of scenario. While setting expectations using a first-then statement (“First, you will wear your mask for ten minutes, then you can have a popsicle.”), a visual may make this more concrete for your child. A picture of them wearing a mask can be included under the “first” section, and a picture of their preferred treat or activity can be included under the “then” spot.

A visual timer is another way to help delineate expectations. Either through a standalone handheld timer or a tool such as Goally, creating a way for your child to visualize the passage of time can help ease anxiety and make expectations for how long they need to wear a mask more tangible for your child.

Just like many adults, children can also love seeing a visual of their progress toward goals. Creating a chart or graph of positive mask-wearing behaviors at home can be another fun way to reinforce these skills.

Keep it fun

While working on this new skill, kick the process off by associating (or pairing) it with a fun, preferred activity. Try to save access to a special activity or item for times when your child is wearing a mask. 

With practice, your child will learn that: Wearing a mask = fun, special times! Mask comes off = fun, special time ends! This strategy can be helpful for getting over initial resistance and should be gradually faded out once your child gets accustomed to wearing a mask for the desired length of time.

A positive, fun outlook on mask-wearing from others in your child’s life can also go a long way. If the adults in the house are consistently modeling a positive outlook around their child (“I get to wear my blue mask today at work! Isn’t it so fun? I think it makes me look like a superhero!”), they may be more likely to follow suit. 

Kids playing and wearing masks | Free Vector

Start small

Lastly, let’s remember to manage our own expectations as parents! If your child currently completely refuses to touch their mask, it may be best to taper your expectations and gradually build up to the ultimate goal.

Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, set small, achievable goals that can strategically get your child’s mask-wearing to the level where it needs to be for school or other settings. For some children, rewarding the first step of touching a mask may be the starting point. For others, you may want to start with shorter lengths of time and gradually increase the time.

Regardless of where your child is in their mask-wearing journey, remember that it is a new skill and can be challenging for them. Taking the time to catch them wearing their mask appropriately (“I love how you are wearing your mask around your nose right now!”) and rewarding them for small wins can go a long way! 


Rachel Dowse is a Goally team member, former middle school teacher, and a practicing BCBA residing in Nashville, TN. When she's not working, she loves spending time with her husband and two children hiking, playing outdoors, and drinking good coffee with a book in hand.

Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.

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