These are questions you may be asked as a child care professional. You may feel uncomfortable not knowing the specific answers or strategies to support children and families in need of guidance and/or support. The truth is, often when looking at ways to assist children with health and wellness -- physical health is typically the primary focus.
As we are learning in recent years, the key to supporting a child’s overall well-being includes offering awareness to their mental health in addition to physical health and development. According to the CDC, being mentally healthy, includes achieving developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills as well as the ability to cope when problems arise.
Children, like adults, experience stress and may be affected when exposed to traumatic or stressful life events and encounter effects to their ability to cope with life’s stressors.
Research shows that mental health concerns can be traced to challenges occurring in infancy and childhood. The early exposure to consistent stressors and highly stressful events can become toxic stress if adult support is not present to buffer the stressful experiences to minimize the effects.
This cycle can lead to trauma and have lasting impacts to a child’s social-emotional and cognitive development, negatively impacting their mental health. As a child care professional the key to supporting children’s mental health is to provide consistent care, support, and positive interactions to assist children with maintaining low stress while building trust.
Below are 5 tips on how to implement children’s mental health supportive strategies in the learning environment.
1. Engage in conversation and interactions with children
A child’s development is influenced by all relationships they encounter daily. It is beneficial for adults to provide opportunities for children to learn self-regulation, communicate needs, and build secure attachments through engaging activities and back-and-forth interactions to support infant and early childhood mental health.
Suggestions for supportive strategies to use in the classroom include:
• Sing a song to the child while changing his or her diaper
• Engage in cooing and smiling back and forth
• Calmly mirror what children are feeling and expressing
• Make daily routines playful
• Engage in consistent and intentional 1:1 activities, i.e., reading/sharing books together, building blocks, drawing etc.
2. Conduct and record observations and documentation
Conducting observations and documentation allows the teacher to identify areas in need of growth, achievement, and or concern. Recording the observations is a helpful tool to use and evaluate the information received to create action plans and interventions.
Helpful Hint: Creating a system to keep track of observations conducted, including date, child’s name and area of focus can be helpful to ensure observations and documentation completed capture the whole scope of the child’s development.
3. Create and implement a consistent daily routines
Consistency with daily routines, activities, transitions, and schedule allows for trust to build and eventually influences secure attachments between educator and child. This connection allows the children to feel safe exploring and building healthy attachments in the academic setting.
Allowing children to participate in the daily decisions and activity choices provides empowerment by nurturing self-regulation that positively impacts social-emotional development. For older children including a visual calendar and or chart can be an effective way to encourage engagement and build self-confidence!
4. Partner with families
Parent partnerships is a valuable component to supporting both adult and child mental health. Maintaining open communication is important when developing plans to provide consistency between the home and learning environment. Facilitating communication by asking questions during drop-off and pick-up, consistently completing, and sending daily sheets along with conducting conferences are helpful practices to encourage on-going communication and streamline the resources provided for development and overall quality of care.
Reminder: When partnering with families, it is best practice for the family, child care educators, administrative team, and outside specialists such as child mental health services or pediatric medical professionals to work closely to ensure children and their families receive the complete help and support they need.
5. Design an enriched classroom environment
The classroom environment is an essential part of supporting mental health in children! As early childhood professionals you have the exciting opportunity to create an environment where children can explore in a safe and stable space that supports their social and emotional needs, stimulating positive mental health. An enriched physical environment can positively influence a child’s curiosity, social-emotional development, in addition to inspire imaginative play and encourage critical thinking.
When creating the space things to consider include, colors, lighting, activities, toys, books, sensory items/activities, furniture, and spacing. These elements should also be viewed as an extension of learning and arranged to meet the various abilities, developmental levels, and interests for all children to explore.
Find out more helpful information in the online training course bundle, Resilience Strategies for Children's Mental Health. This 4 hour course bundle will address the importance of children’s mental health and explore strategies you can use to build resilience in children and families. See all available courses in your state on the course catalog.