This week is Mental Health Awareness week - a good time to plan for mental wellness in our early childhood centres. With our youth struggling increasingly, and at an earlier age, with severe mental health issues, it is important to consider how their early childhood experiences can contribute to a happy outlook on life and help them build resilience and problem solving skills. Untreated anxiety places children at greater risk of poor performance at school, substance abuse and depression during adolescence.
A helpful starting point is to reflect on how young children who worry excessively are supported and nurtured in early childhood settings. Do we make sure that new children get plenty of warm and unhurried settle-in time with Mum or Dad present? Can struggling children begin to feel safe and understood? Are we building authentic relationships with our children, and do we show them how to build a support network in their centre and wider community?
Early childhood teachers deal with separation anxiety and “small” fears on a daily basis. But how do we know if there’s more to it? Warning signals of anxiety could include “freezing”, refusing to eat, use the toilet, or taking a coat or hat off. Selective mutism, shadowing an adult, tearfulness and tummy aches could also indicate that something is amiss.
What is the best way to deal with an anxious toddler or preschooler?
We have a few ideas to get you started!
- Naming and validating the child’s emotions is better than ignoring them. Give calm reassurance and have some soothing, sensory-rich activities at hand to help them get their emotions under control.
- Use some of the child’s calmer moments to teach them about emotions and coping skills. Deep breathing does wonders!
- Encourage the development of language and communication skills, as this is a key to the child being able to explain and understand what is happening with them.
A centre programme offering plenty of play and physical activities that foster confidence, resilience and problem solving is good help to clear out the monsters and cobwebs and place the focus on the positive.
If a child does not settle in within a reasonable time, it may be a good idea to put extra help in place - specific support strategies, an ILP, or maybe connecting with an early intervention professional. Parents may consider visiting the child’s GP or pediatrician to rule out health issues that may contribute.
Written by Hanlie Kruger, Grad Dip (ECE)