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Grow & Thrive - Mental health

  • Vol 5 No. 1, February 2016

    Tipping the scales: promoting child mental health

    Among the many skills that children develop in their early years are social and emotional wellbeing skills, which provide the foundation for children’s mental health. These skills are critical to helping young children manage the ups and downs that are part of everyone’s life. Children who are mentally healthy can cope better with challenges, are more open to learning, and are more responsive to new things and new people. 

    In the early years, we can think of child mental health as being like an old-fashioned set of scales – one side are the positive factors that contribute to mental wellbeing, on the other, the negative factors. Parents, teachers and early childhood educators can all work together to help young children to load up the positive side of the scale and minimise the factors weighing down the negative side. 

    Some of protective factors within a child that can help to load up the positive side of the scale are:

    • having an easy-going temperament
    • having positive expectations of themselves
    • feeling positive about the future
    • having a sense of independence
    • possessing good communication, problem-solving and social skills
    • being able to regulate their own emotions
    • positive and lasting relationships with friends and family.

    All children will have good days and bad days, but poor mental health in childhood is more than having a bad day sometimes. When children are faced with multiple and long lasting negative factors – things like being an anxious child, experiencing conflict at home, or being culturally or socially isolated – the risk factors on the negative side of the scale pile up and, for some children, poor mental health can be the result.

    Steps to promote child mental health

    There are steps you can take to help promote children’s mental health:

    Maintain routines

    Routines can help young children and babies to feel secure. Having routines for story-time and meals, for example, offers structure. 

    Listen to children’s concerns

    Having a trusted adult to talk to when they’re worried, one who won’t judge and who will listen carefully, is an important factor in children’s mental health.

    Build a network with other adults

    Your relationships with the other adults in each child’s life – relevant health professionals, other teachers and early childhood educators, and the child’s family – are an important factor in their mental health. Modelling healthy relationships helps children to build a network of secure attachment figures, which all contributes to developing mental wellbeing.

    If you are still concerned, talk with the child’s parents or other caregivers about their child seeing a GP for an assessment and further referral if needed.

    Learn more

    KidsMatter has a large range of resources for families, early childhood educators, and teachers to help children to develop and maintain good mental health. You can also subscribe to their e-newsletter to keep you up to date with all the latest resources and training opportunities

    The  Raising Children Network offers extensive, evidence-based resources on mental health for parents, professionals and children of all ages.

    Managing emotions – early childhood educators

    Developing emotional self-regulation is one of the major tasks of the early years and sets children up to manage the ups and downs of their life. In the first years of life, children develop these skills through strong attachments and supportive relationships with adults.

    Relationships with adults – beginning with primary caregivers, and growing to include attachments to early childhood educators and other caregivers – give children the opportunity to observe emotional self-regulation and coping skills in action. As they watch how you manage a challenging situation, children learn skills and words that can help them to manage their own challenging situations. 

    Mirroring children's emotions

    The relationships young children have with adults help children’s social and emotional skill development enormously. When a child in your care is experiencing a stressful situation:

    What educators can do ... How this helps social and emotional development …
    Observe the child without saying anything and try to ascertain the build up to the situation. Watch facial expressions, tone and posture – as well as listening to any explanation from the child – to understand their perspective.
    • Adults develop a better understanding of what the child might be experiencing, and how that particular child expresses their emotions.
    Notice all the emotions; negative and positive. 
    • Children develop an understanding that both positive and negative emotions are valid and worth expressing.
    Consider what the child may be feeling, but try to avoid judging what the cause might be.
    • Adults think about what the child is experiencing and try to remain open minded. 
    Briefly tell the child how they appear to you and the emotion you have observed, ‘You look a bit sad’ etc.
    • Children hear short and simple language that is less likely to overwhelm or confuse them. 
    As children grow older, the variety of feelings they experience become more nuanced (ie, mad and sad, becomes angry and frustrated). This allows caregivers to use a wider range of feeling words.
    • Children develop a more sophisticated vocabulary for their emotions, in step with their development.
    • As children increase their feelings vocabulary, they enhance their ability to distinguish between the different feelings. 
    It’s important to consider and acknowledge the emotion you observe, even if you don’t think the way the child is feeling is reasonable.
    • Adult acknowledgement helps children to feel that they’ve been understood and makes it more likely that they’ll share the way they’re feeling in the future.
    • By acknowledging the child’s feelings, you develop your ability to recognise emotions, even if those feelings don’t seem reasonable.
    Was your initial observation accurate? Revise as needed.
    • Adults improve their emotional mirroring skills by taking the time to consider and revise.
    • Children gain practice at using their words to express their emotions.
    • Children can feel better understood and more capable.

    Adapted from Kostelnik, M.J., Whiren, A.B., Soderman, A.K., & Gregory, K. (2006). Guiding children’s social development. Theory to practice (5th edn). Thomson Delmar Learning: NY.

    Learn more

    KidsMatter has a large range of resources for families, early childhood educators, and teachers to help children to develop and maintain good mental health. You can also subscribe to their e-newsletter to keep you up to date with all the latest resources and training opportunities: 

    The Raising Children Network offers extensive, evidence-based resources on mental health for parents, professionals and children of all ages. 

    Stress: early primary school

    Stress is a normal part of life for all of us. In the early years, stressful experiences can provide children with opportunities to learn and develop as they tackle new challenges.

    However not all stress provides a positive opportunity for children to learn; some sorts of stress can affect children’s natural ‘alarm systems’ in a way that disrupts their healthy development.

    We can think of stress as occurring in three varieties: positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress.

    Positive stress

    Positive stress is a normal part of healthy child development. Children can experience positive stress when they start a new school or are trying hard to master a new skill.

    Provided children have supportive adult relationships that can help them to manage the stressful time, this sort of stress can provide an opportunity to learn and practise ways to respond to the sorts of ups and downs they will experience throughout life.

    Tolerable stress

    Examples of tolerable stresses include being ill or injured, or their parents separating – things that are generally not part of the routine of a child’s life. When children experience tolerable stress, their body’s alarm systems are triggered to a greater degree than they are in positive stress.

    Healthy and supportive relationships with adults are important in seriously stressful times. The potentially damaging effects of stress on healthy development can be mitigated by supportive environments at home and at school.

    Toxic stress

    Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences severe and ongoing stress and does not have supportive relationships or environments to buffer these experiences. Examples of toxic stress include living in a household where a parent has a problem with alcohol or other drugs, or where there is abuse or family violence.

    In the absence of healthy and supportive relationships in these sorts of stressful situations, a child’s natural alarm systems will be activated in a way that is disruptive to their development and to their health. 

    Helping school children to cope with stress

    There are steps you can take at school to help the children in your class to cope with stress:

    • Create a positive and supportive classroom environment.
    • Be an active and thoughtful listener for the children in your classroom.
    • Share information with other staff, parents or caregivers to identify things could be affecting the stress levels of a child in your classroom.
    • Allow time for children to be active during the day.
    • Encourage children to express themselves creatively with art, sport and music.

    If you are concerned about a child in your class, talk with the child’s parents or other caregivers about their child seeing a GP for an assessment and further referral if needed.

    Learn more

    KidsMatter has a large range of resources for families, early childhood educators, and teachers to help children to develop and maintain good mental health. You can also subscribe to their e-newsletter to keep you up to date with all the latest resources and training opportunities: 

    The  Raising Children Network offers extensive, evidence-based resources on mental health for parents, professionals and children of all ages. 


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Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.