We don’t think of young children as having ‘mental health problems’ but any educator will have experience of dealing with children who were overwhelmed by their emotions, and have sometimes felt challenged by the behaviour of toddlers and pre-schoolers.
In fact the early years are a crucial time when children’s brains are developing the architecture to understand and manage their emotions, and how adults respond to them can either help or hinder their emotional development and mental well-being.
As part of Mental Health Month, Amplify! reviews some of the best regarded experts and most helpful resources for educators on supporting resilience and mental wellbeing in children.
“I was standing by the fence, holding a child’s hand. He was crying. Loudly. And he’d been crying loudly for the last 3 hours.” Canadian Kindergarten teacher Heather Bredin begins her story on the Mehrit Center blog
Little Bobby (not his real name) put everyone on edge. I was desperately trying to be calm, to co-regulate, to soothe him. I was trying to turn his alarm off. But my body was reacting to his stress as if it was a warning of danger. My body was saying, “Where? Where is the threat? This person is acting like there is a threat, but I can’t see it!”
Stuart Shanker, the charismatic founder of the Mehrit Centre and the Self-Reg movement stresses that the most important response we can have to children in distress is to model calming behaviour, and not to mirror their stress.
“The first and most important step is for them to experience being soothed and calmed when they are over-stressed,” he explains. “This knowledge is absorbed, internalized. We have to aim for this sort of experiential knowledge long before we start explaining or describing. And when we do start talking to them about stress, we have to avoid using terms or concepts that they won’t be able to grasp.”
Shanker has formulated 5 steps for educators to help children self-regulate their own emotions:
Reframe the behaviour
That is, distinguish between ‘misbehaviour’ and ‘stress-behaviour’. Each requires a very different response from us to help the child – and ourselves!
Identify the stressors
We have to become stress detectives and learn how to recognize stresses across five domains: physical, emotion, cognitive, social and prosocial.
Reduce the stresses
For example, if a child is overloaded by large groups of kids, start them off with play-dates with just one. If they are over-stressed by auditory stimuli cut down on background noise (e.g., having the TV or radio constantly playing).
It is essential for kids to learn what it feels like to be calm, and to recognise when they are starting to become over-stressed. They can’t learn one without the other. And don’t make the mistake of confusing calm with quiet. All too often a child can be forced to be quiet while their heart is still beating fast and their tension is still high.
Learn what sorts of activities help restore balance in all five of our self-Reg domains
Every child is different, and what’s more, constantly changing. There is no one-size-fits-all, so you may need to experiment: is it sports, music, art, reading, cooking, nature walks: all of the above!
In Australia we have a national, federally funded program that supports early childhood services and schools to nurture the mental health of children. It’s called Be You, and there are Be You Early Learning facilitators in every state and territory to help your service implement the program.
According to Be You ‘1 in 7 school-age children has a mental health problem, like anxiety, depression and behaviour problems, but only 1 in 4 gets the help they need’. The earlier we can help children experiencing stress and behaviour problems in early childhood, the more impact we can have in reducing this alarming statistic.
The Be You website has a wealth of information and resources to help educators navigate the mental health terrain. For example, there is a description of the Mental Health Continuum – from ‘Flourishing’ to ‘Going OK’ to ‘Unsettled’ to ‘Mental Health Condition’.
Most children sit at the flourishing or going ok end most of the time, but if you start to notice changes in their relationships or behaviour that suggest they may be heading towards the ‘mental health condition’ end of the spectrum, then there are things educators can do to help get things back on track.
Be You advocates for educators to observe children’s behaviour to be able to assess what type of support they need, and they have developed the BETLS Observation Tool to gather information on children’s – Behaviour, Emotions, Thoughts, Learning and Social Relationships. You can download a chart template that helps you to record the circumstances of the behaviour, how often it happens, how long it lasts and how seriously it impacts on the child’s day to day life.