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COVID Masks Hide Expressions, and That Affects Children

Fox News Interviews Mind-Eye Founder on Impact of Mask-Wearing

Eyes and ears must “work together as a team” if a child is to develop appropriate social skills and perform at a high level in school and in athletics, but what happens when facial expressions, which are important visual cues for developing eye-ear connections, remain hidden behind masks?

That was a question Deborah Zelinsky, OD, explored during a recent live Zoom interview on the Fox TV Chicago morning news program Good Day Chicago. Dr. Zelinsky is the founder and executive research director of the Mind-Eye Institute, based in Northbrook, Ill., and is internationally known for her use of advanced, scientific approaches in assessing brain function, with emphasis on the linkage between eyes and ears.

“The brain simultaneously integrates information from the right and left eyes and ears, as well as signals from non-visually-related receptors in the eye, the inner ear, and fibers in the muscles, such as the neck and feet,” Dr. Zelinsky explains. “If these signals are mismatched, the brain makes the body fidget, searching for a posture in which eyes and ears can work together. Constant fidgeting, often diagnosed as ADD – attention deficit disorder, is often a child’s search for eye-ear integration.”

Because visual cues, particularly facial expressions, play such an important role in a child’s learned eye-ear connections, emotional maturation, and self-awareness, Dr. Zelinsky worries that hiding faces behind masks during the current COVID-19 pandemic could hinder language development, reading, and social skills in some children.

“Even toddlers begin learning to connect speech with mouth movements, but that process cannot take place when the mouth is hidden behind a mask,” she told Fox News anchors.

Dr. Zelinsky emphasizes that mask-wearing is necessary during the pandemic to preserve personal health as well as the health of others but says masks do create a dilemma between protecting the immune system and “disrupting development of sensory integration in young, developing children.” Monica Gori’s extensive research in Italy has demonstrated that eye-ear integration is not solidly developed until age 8.

“Keeping masks on lessens the spread of virus particles,” she affirms, “but taking masks off helps synchronize eyes and ears.”

Dr. Zelinsky adds that “visual processing/visual awareness is essential to all aspects of learning.” Visual processing refers to the brain’s almost-instantaneous ability (partially beneath a conscious level of awareness) to take in external sensory signals (from eyesight, hearing, smell, taste and touch), meld them with a person’s internal sensory signals and then synthesize – process — the information, allowing a person to react and respond to the surrounding environment.

“To achieve optimal school performance, students must be able to integrate their many sensory systems in order to maintain awareness of facial expressions and body posture, while also looking at information presented on a classroom screen. Students have to simultaneously listen and think about what the teacher is saying, while shifting gaze from place to place,” she explains. “Children who struggle with reading, for example, likely have underdeveloped visual processing skills. These skills have nothing to do with 20/20 eyesight. ”

With mask-wearing expected to remain a necessary practice well into 2021 or longer, Dr. Zelinsky told Fox News that parents and teachers can help overcome children’s lack of sensory stimuli by playing games that develop eye-ear connections.

“One way is by reading aloud to very young children with vocal emotion and then using facial expression to mirror it, such as a grin or broad smile for happiness, pursed lips for anger, and a turned down mouth for sadness,” Dr. Zelinsky advises.

At home, parents could further help developing children pay attention to expressions, she says. “Have them look at faces while listening. Discuss emotions felt and seen. There is an entire movement — Keep Smiling — that addresses the benefits of smiles for brain development.

“For older children, play games such as putting on a mask and then asking them to look at your eyes and decipher what feelings you are expressing,” she continues. “Some companies even sell cards depicting a variety of faces expressing a range of emotions. Such cards can help children imitate and identify expressions. Other games might involve hiding a cell phone and having children figure out where they hear it ringing or blindfolding them and tossing a beanbag onto the ground to have them visualize where it lands.”

Most importantly, she said to the Fox news team, smiles are lurking somewhere behind the COVID masks. Children just need help finding them as part of the process of developing lifelong visual skills.