Addressing mental health in kindergarten

The real conversations need to be with the parents and caregivers.

Mental health is an important factor that contributes to the wellbeing of children at all ages, and it is vital that strategies aiming to target mental health issues are appropriately directed, especially in early childhood education. Bedrock Journalist Sara El Sayed looks at how mental health discussions should be approached in a kindergarten context.

A $53 million Mental Health in Education initiative announced by the Federal Government earlier this year will see students, including those in kindergarten, being taught about suicide awareness and mental health.

It was announced that teachers from early childhood through to Year 12 would be provided additional mental health and suicide training in their university degrees or VET education, and those already teaching would undergo additional online and face to face training to better improve the discussion with children around the issue.

While leaders of the initiative have highlighted the need for consideration of language used in discussions surrounding mental health and suicide prevention with younger children, it is important to consider the character of those conversations that might occur between teachers and children.

The kindergarten context differs vastly to that of primary and secondary school, and consideration needs to be given to the most effective and sensitive way to approach these issues.

The discussion with parents

Expert in the area of early intervention and promotion of mental health, Emeritus Professor Graham Martin of the University of Queensland, said these discussions should not be focussed with the kindergarten aged children; rather with their parents.

“It is not necessarily useful to be talking about these issues directly with young children at the kindergarten age.

“The real conversations need to be with the parents and caregivers.

“What we know is that children emulate and copy their parents, and their parents’ ways of doing things.

“If a child has parents who are angry, are verbally or physically abusive, or act negatively towards the child, the child will adopt that language, adopt the style, could eventually start abusing other kids, and the effect on their own mental health could be detrimental.”

Professor Martin pointed to research conducted in South Australia showing that suicidal children have parents who are hyper critical, have extremely high expectations which are almost impossible to meet, that are negative and are relatively uncaring.

“The combination of being hyper critical, verbally abusive and relatively uncaring seems to be related to young people taking overdoses and feeling suicidal.

“The focus should be on addressing the root of the issue and helping the parents change their way of operating with their children.

“We know that parents who are abusive, negative, hyper critical, physically or sexually abusive are actually creating a cycle which will go on for generations.

“This can start at a very young age. If a parent shows care, love, concern and support to all people they come into contact with, they’re providing a role model for the child to adopt – that’s what is most important for kindergarten aged children.

“Parents who are sensitive towards their children’s needs, who provide warmth in their relationship and act as positive role models allow their children to develop into kind, gentle, perceptive people.”

Professor Martin suggested parents should read to their children every night to support good mental health.

“There is a wide range of books and picture books that cover the issues beautifully and allow parents to simply work through stories with the children that demonstrate the kind of care and relationships that are necessary to support mental health and avoid the negative influences.

“Richard Scarry books, for example, or Possum Magic by Mem Fox; reading any story that helps children to understand feelings and find ways to deal with feelings is a good start.”

What teachers can do

Professor Martin said teachers and kindergarten staff need to step in if they see parents are struggling, or if they see parents being hyper critical, abusive and negative.

“If there is a professional watching the interplay between the parents and child, they can pick up on whether the parent might be struggling or might need some extra help and then either take them aside or recommend support for them.

“It’s about that early recognition of where things are going wrong.

“Teachers have the ability to make a difference in building protection for young people at that early age which will be lifelong.”

The focus, then, of the Mental Health In Education funding in a kindergarten context should not be on having teachers address these sensitive topics with their young students directly, but support should be given in equipping teachers to appropriately approach discussions with parents, and to flag warning signs.

Professor Martin recommended that early career teachers seek the help and guidance of experienced colleagues in addressing issues with parents.

“It shouldn’t be expected that a recently graduated teacher or early career teacher handle these conversations with parents alone.

“The first step is to discuss how to proceed with the director or manager of the kindergarten, or the senior person in the centre.

“It’s a case of getting support from colleagues and administration and then conducting the process together.

“Often it’s not a question of being punitive with the parents – it’s about sitting down and discussing what was noticed, and what can be done to help or resolve the issue,” Professor Martin said.

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