What is our role in supporting young children’s mental health?

Alison Heseltine, Early Years Development Manager, Early Years Alliance
19th February 2024 

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As general awareness of the importance of mental health continues to grow, there is now also a greater understanding of the crucial role it plays in children’s learning and development. By supporting children to build strong mental health foundations, we can help to ensure that children grow into confident individuals who take the experiences of life in their stride, both during their early childhood years and in the future.

The NSPCC recently reported that over half of all Childline counselling sessions held in 2022/23 had mental and emotional health issues at their core. The current research into our children’s mental health and well-being makes for uncomfortable reading, with one in 10 children and young people suffering from mental health problems such as stress and anxiety that they feel unable to cope with –and sadly even the youngest of children feature in these figures.

We know that the early years can be a challenging and overwhelming period for children as they learn to understand themselves and find their place in the world. It’s the time when they often start to attend early years provision and, perhaps for the first time, are separated from significant familiar figures. It is for this reason that was as early years educators form an integral piece in the jigsaw of children’s lives and, alongside families, provide the social, emotional and mental health support network they need during this period of change and transition.

Early Years Alliance

That said, recognising that a young child is struggling is not always easy. They may not have the emotional understanding or language skills to explain to others how they are feeling. We should ask ourselves: ‘How are they communicating their feelings with us?’, ‘Are we seeing and listening to their needs?’ and, taking a moment to reflect on our practice and provision, ‘Have we created an emotionally supportive, stable and responsive environment where they feel safe and believe that their voice will be heard?’

As educators, how we approach and support each child in our care can be guided by the four overarching principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage. We need to see children as unique, clearly showing that we believe them to be capable individuals full of potential, that with the support of positive relationships can overcome any difficulties and become the very best they can be. By providing a supportive environment, both physically and emotionally, that responds to their needs and works in harmony with the rest of their lives, we can help them to learn to understand their emotions and experiences. We know that when children are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing, it negatively impacts their development – until they feel safe with people they trust and who believe in them they are not ready to progress in their learning.

Finally, don’t forget that in order to be in a position to support children’s mental health and wellbeing, it’s important that we remember to be kind to ourselves. Responding positively to children who are experiencing difficulties involves reflecting and rethinking practice and can drain our emotional strength, placing pressure on our own mental health and wellbeing. We all encounter times when life is difficult and overwhelming and acknowledging this and reaching out for help when it’s needed means we are in a better place to care for and support the children in our care.

Alison Heseltine, Early Years Development Manager, Early Years Alliance

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