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In the labyrinth tissue of the connections that occur within your brain, there are neurons known as “empathy cells.”

Those neurons, which were discovered almost by chance just 25 years ago, are not only responsible for your empathy, but also for social interaction with people and the world around you.

And they are especially important when you are a child, because it is then that you develop – from 6 months or one year of age – the social reference, or your ability to use and recognize emotional expressions.

Precisely in Spain it was recently announced that the return to school will be with masks, a measure that China has already taken before and that could be applied in many other countries.

In Austrian classrooms, children wear a mask and maintain social distance.

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How will the fact that we have (and have) to wear masks affect social reference and other aspects of learning in children? And what can we do about it?

A matter of ages

the emotional partGutiérrez responds. “And not only the masks, but also other hygienic measures, such as social distance.” “Data-reactid =” 62 “>” It affects social interaction and especially the emotional partGutiérrez responds. “And not only the masks, but also other hygienic measures, such as social distance.”

“This causes an emotional block with others because communication does not occur naturally, especially in places where daily physical contact is so important, as occurs in Spain or in many Latin American countries. A social rejection and negative feelings of fear, anguish, and phobia are created ”.

Teens are a vulnerable group, experts say.

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“We have not yet been able to appreciate what it will be like in the classroom, but it will undoubtedly affect it because children will not be able to visualize our mouth, which is essential to express what we want to transmit,” adds the psychotherapist.

The psychologist and researcher Angela Ulloa Solís, with 20 years of experience in children and adolescents, who works in the Adolescent Unit of the Gregorio Marañón University Hospital in Madrid, is also concerned about this issue.

“It is a fairly new topic that leaves more questions than answers in the air,” he tells BBC Mundo in a telephone interview. “In many schools it is not yet known what measures will be taken or the impact it will have, but it is interesting to have some alarms in mind to prevent.”

Regarding the first, “early ages and adolescence are points to watch very closely,” says the specialist.

Younger children are more susceptible to the effects of the mask.

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“The stages are key because until the end of early childhood education, social reference continues to be configured as a vehicle for the child to learn to relate to the environment and to peers, and in adolescence it is also an important point,” explains Ulloa.

“If the child has acquired the social reference well, he will be able to adapt better to the changes,” adds the psychologist. “We have to be very attentive to what is normal development and, according to what stage, reinforce the tools we have to compensate for what we are going to miss with the mask.”

“All this is already being discussed and shared among experts from different parts of the world,” says Ulloa.

Some teachers and counselors believe that teaching should be much more visual.

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Mental health. So I think online therapy is going to occupy a very prominent place. “” Data-reactid = “139”> “One of the issues is whether to use screens so that children can see the gestures that the professional makes, but the challenge is to achieve a balance so as not to jeopardize physical health without harming Mental health. That is why I believe that online therapy is going to occupy a very prominent place ”.

He believes that a teacher wearing a mask could have “certain effects on student learning”, and agrees with Ulloa that it will affect to a greater or lesser extent depending on the age of the child, “especially in younger children who they require vocal modeling (to teach how to pronounce the sounds of language) or they need more time for facial expression ”.

“You don’t have to be terrific, but in some children it could have certain repercussions,” adds the speech therapist.

3 types of changes

What can we do to minimize the impact?

In many classrooms, the situation will change, although the hope is that it will be temporary.

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Pisón del Real believes that the important thing is to ensure “that there is a multisensory education, especially promoting the sense of touch.”

, on a personal, organizational and methodological level“He tells BBC Mundo.” Data-reactid = “166”> “I also think that some modifications should be made in the school environment, on a personal, organizational and methodological level”He tells BBC Mundo.

He himself, he says, was giving a talk recently on how to prepare teachers for the possible new return to classrooms.

The changes on a personal level, he indicates, can vary from the elevation of the voice, accompanied by greater kinesthetic support (body movement), to the complementary use of digital whiteboards, in addition to controlling the level of noise in the classroom or speaking more. slowly.

Masks will be a common garment in schools around the world.

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“When we have to wear a mask, we lose a lot of skills in the speech mechanism,” says the speech therapist. “We have to speak louder and repeat the oral message more times and that can be transferred to the classroom.”

“Those routines are vital to reduce anxiety and emotional impact, not only on students but also on teachers.”

Play with masks

Ulloa advises interacting with children through games using the masks, “for example, helping them to read what the eyes are saying or playing guessing expressions”.

in a non-threatening way, which is key to the influence it may have on their development. “” data-reactid = “196”> “If caregivers, whether at home or at school, manage to stay more calm, serene and even use humor and game so that the child can introduce into his day-to-day something as alien as a mask, the child will perceive it in a non-threatening way, which is key to the influence it may have on its development ”.

“The fact of making it look like a game is to help you have more control over something that is new,” says the psychologist.

Some experts recommend addressing the issue of face masks with minors as a game.

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Pisón del Real has a similar opinion: “Obviously, children (and many adults) associate masks with risk, with an abnormal situation, with concern. I think it is important to send children a message of hope in this normalization of something abnormal. “

the message of safety and protection“.” Data-reactid = “219”> “We as adults have to teach them to manage these emotions. They are going to need more support, empathy, comfort and answers to the unknowns they have. It is necessary that, in some way, they have the message of safety and protection

“We have to take into account that masks are going to be an important element of protection in our lives, but also that they are going to be something temporary and temporary,” says the specialist.

On the other hand, Ulloa states that questions will have to be answered about how many hours the child will have to wear the mask at school or whether it can be removed depending on age. “All this would be essential to make plans in schools so that this lack is compensated.”

different stages throughout the year, some more relaxed, perhaps in summer, and others stricter, “he predicts.” data-reactid = “222”> “I think there will be different stages throughout the year, some more relaxed, perhaps in summer, and others stricter, ”he predicts.

Brain plasticity

The three specialists consulted by BBC Mundo agree that children’s brain plasticity can help make change not so problematic.

“All of us who work with children know perfectly well that they adapt quickly due to their brain plasticity,” says Gutiérrez.

Children are flexible and adapt to new situations quickly.

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“For me, that’s the most hopeful thing,” says Ulloa. “The brain is very plastic. It is made up of neural circuits, and the more you use circuits, the more they are reinforced. But we can also generate alternative circuits and exercise them ”.

This can be applied to the use of masks: “If its use were so limiting that we had to exercise much more to focus on the information that is not covered by the mask (such as the gaze), we would end up being experts in reading that information “

In that way, masks could even allow us to literally develop a more empathetic “look”.

Pisón del Real is clear that we will be able to find it: “The you and the self have already become a us because each one of us is contributing our grain of sand,” he says optimistically.

When he thinks about going back to the classroom, Gutiérrez talks about empathy.

“The first thing will be to ask the children how they are and how they feel, and accompany them emotionally. That they feel loved, that they feel that we are there and that we are close, even if we seem distant. That is the most important”.

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