Six Ways to Support Early Childhood Mental Health
Young children often experience intense emotions that they may be unable to communicate fully using verbal communication. Despite a lack of ability to effectively communicate their feelings, significant mental health problems can and do occur in young children. Children can demonstrate clear characteristics of anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, at a very early age. The earlier adults are able to detect these characteristics and implement intervention and support services, the greater the outcome. In fact, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Most potential mental health problems will not become mental health problems if we respond to them early.” For this reason, prevention and early intervention are key to promoting positive Infant and Early Childhood mental health (IECMH).
Understanding the concept of IECMH is paramount to effectively addressing the mental health of Early Childhood. Mental health includes one’s emotional and social well-being; it impacts how someone thinks, acts, and how they feel about themselves and others. IECMH, specifically, is known as “the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.” More broadly, IECMH also includes behavioral indicators that a child may be struggling, situations that put a young child’s social and emotional well-being at risk, and the implementation of early intervention and support to protect Early Childhood mental health.
Why is IECMH Important?
Positive early childhood experiences can promote strong emotional health, while negative experiences can adversely impact brain development, with serious lifelong consequences. As a result, interventions during this period can be much more powerful and have more lasting effects than those that are implemented in later stages of development. With this in mind, it is critical that adults are aware of what IECMH is, know what affects it, understand the warning signs, and implement support strategies for IECMH.
What Factors Affect IECMH in an Early Childhood Classroom?
The interactions that take place between the adults and children in early childhood programs and the interactions amongst children and their peers have a profound impact on IECMH. These interactions form the basis for all future relationships and are directly related to a child’s overall developmental status. They help young children develop emotional security, sense of self, and an understanding of the world around them.
There are a variety of risk factors that can influence these relationships and, ultimately, a young child’s mental health including prematurity and low birth weight, genetic disorders, and exposure to substances, violence, abuse, or chronic stress and anxiety.
How do Young Children Tell us They are Hurting?
Young children will provide clues of their mental health through their behaviors. Closely observing to identify their typical patterns of behavior and temperament will allow Montessori guides to recognize persistent changes. For students who may be newer in the classroom, educators can look for behavior that is unexpected for children based on age and developmental milestones. Inquiring with caregivers on behaviors they are seeing at home can also be helpful in identifying what is considered normal behavior for each child.
These are some common behavioral indicators guides can look for that may indicate a stressed or distressed preschooler:
- A change in appetite, bowel movements, and/or sleep patterns
- A change in activity level (less engaged; more lethargic; unable to sit still; unfocused)
- A change in attentiveness (decreased attention span and persistence at a preferred task; increased listless roaming)
- A change in level of social engagement with peers and/or caregivers
- A reduced tolerance for frustration, which may present as whining or irritability
- Difficulty being comforted when upset
- Increased aggression or anger with little or no provoking; an explosive response to an event without an apparent trigger
- Displays repeated aggressive or impulsive behavior
- A change in seeking attention from educators
- Little or no communication; lack of language
- Avoidance of eye contact with others
- Separation anxiety or withdrawal from caregiver
- Engages in compulsive activities (e.g., play enacted in a specific order, hand washing, repeating words silently)
- Loss of earlier developmental achievements
- Anxious and fearful in most situations
6 ways to Support Early Childhood Mental Health
- Focus on joy. Doing something that makes you smile or laugh can be the best medicine to prevent the negative effects of stress and anxiety. For young children, some great ways to get endorphins flowing and bring happiness is through music, movement, and outdoor playtime.
- Establish trusting relationships. A trusting and caring relationship between child and guide is essential for a young child’s mental health and overall development. Showing warmth and affection consistently by displaying a pleasant facial expression, using an appropriate tone of voice, communicating at the child’s eye level, and sharing loving comments help establish trust and promote a child’s social-emotional well-being. Showing respect by listening attentively, accepting a child’s feelings, and spending quality one-on-one time with each child will also help strengthen the child-guide relationship.
- Teach social-emotional skills intentionally. Guides can intentionally support student’s mental health by using children’s books, planned lessons on topics such as emotions and Grace & Courtesy, implementing coaching through the use of a Peace Table/Area, and modeling appropriate behaviors.
- Learn to regulate one’s own emotions to be fully available to students. Through a process of self-awareness and self-care, educators can become more in-tune with their own emotions. Developing an understanding of how one is feeling allows guides to work through those emotions and to learn how to regulate them appropriately. Effectively managing one’s own emotions empowers them to be present in the moment, making them available to meet the needs of their students.
- Learn how to identify and respond to students’ emotions and behaviors. Carefully observing young children assists guides in understanding typical emotions and behaviors, allowing them to recognize noticeable differences that may be indicators of anxiety and distress.
- Follow learned Montessori principles and actions. Fostering a child’s independence will develop a strong sense of self and will help them when dealing with negative emotions. Allowing a child to help with routines and self-care activities to the extent possible will help instill a sense of pride. Offering limited choices, especially during difficult times when a child refuses to engage in a specific activity (for example, getting dressed) will empower the child and help to ease the existence of a power struggle. Labeling, acknowledging, and validating a child’s emotions to help them understand what and how they are feeling and that their feelings are accepted is critical.
Each of the strategies above are helpful in maintaining happy, healthy relationships with young children and in supporting their mental health. However, it is important to note that if any of the aforementioned warning signs are present, guides should engage in careful observation and take detailed, subjective notes. Communicating what one is seeing openly and honestly with a child’s parents is vital so that they might make a decision they feel is right in regards to consulting with a medical or mental health provider who specializes in early childhood mental health.
This article is part of a larger series focused on the mental health of students and educators. Read about Infant and Toddler, Elementary, and Secondary mental health.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at email@example.com.