Description: Have you heard of social referencing? Even very young infants do this. Basically, it involves looking at and reading another person’s face (facial expression) in order to find out what something that is around you means. Imagine a toddler sitting in a stroller beside a park bench that one of their parents is sitting on and positioned so that they can see one another’s faces. Now, imagine that a dog, with a wagging tail, approaches them. They look up and see the dog at the same time and the child has not seen or interacted with a real dog before. What does the toddler do? They look at their parent’s face. If their parent likes dogs and appears relax and smiling at the dog’s approach, then the toddler will likely be interested in the dog and not worried about its approach. If, on the other hand, the parent has a borderline phobia of dogs this will likely show on the parent’s face and be read as “here is something to be fearful of” and the toddler will likely responds accordingly; assuming the toddler has a secure attachment relationship with the parent which means the toddler can trust the facial data). This is just an early example of the volumes of information developing toddlers, children and even adults, acquire by “reading” others in social interactions. Given that, what do you think the developmental impacts of social distancing and mask wearing may have on infants, toddlers and children who are engaged in their foundational social development these days? Once you have a hypothesis or two in mind read the article linked below for an informative collection of psychology researcher comments on this topic.
Source: Will the Pandemic Socially Stunt My Kid? Jessica Grose, Parenting, The New York Times.
Date: September 30, 2020
So, it is useful to keep in mind that development in general and social/emotional development in particular is adaptive and flexible. If the lower half of some of the faces preschoolers interact with are covered by masks, then perhaps they will get better at reading eyes and/or body language. It also helps to keep in mind that many of the social engagements that young children participate in are play and, by definition, play is creative and exploratory and as such if previously typical “read” opportunities are unavailable others will most certainly be found and exploited. So, the kids at social play are likely going to be all right (and they may even figure out a few things along the way that their parents could benefit from learning as well)!
Questions for Discussion:
- How do developing children typically use the sorts of social information that may be obscured by social distancing and mask wearing?
- What are some of the ways in which developing children may be adapting to their new social realities?
- What sorts of things should parents of toddlers, young children and older children be doing to support their social and emotional development these days?
References (Read Further):
Korkmaz, B. (2011). Theory of mind and neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Pediatric research, 69(8), 101-108. Link
Clément, F., & Dukes, D. (2017). Social appraisal and social referencing: Two components of affective social learning. Emotion Review, 9(3), 253-261. Link
Monlux, K., Pelaez, M., & Holth, P. (2019). Joint attention and social referencing in children with autism: a behavior-analytic approach. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 20(2), 186-203. Link
Duranton, C., Bedossa, T., & Gaunet, F. (2016). When facing an unfamiliar person, pet dogs present social referencing based on their owners’ direction of movement alone. Animal Behaviour, 113, 147-156. Link
Roy, D. (2020). Masks Method and Impact in the Classroom. Creative Education, 11(5), 710-734. Link
Esposito, S., & Principi, N. (2020). Mask-wearing in pediatric age. European Journal of Pediatrics, 179(8), 1341-1342. Link