Good mental health is vital for learning and life. Just like physical health, it changes over time and according to different contexts. Research shows we can identify mental health problems in early childhood and being aware of and responding to early signs that may indicate a potential difficulty can make a difference. It can help ensure children receive the help they need before problems get worse.
Identifying mental health difficulties
A child’s behaviour is often what first triggers our concerns about their mental health and well-being. We can categorise behaviours that give us cause for concern in 2 ways.
- Externalising or ‘acting out’ behaviours are usually observable and relatively easy to detect e.g. disruptive, impulsive, angry or hyperactive behaviours
- Internalising or ‘holding in’ behaviours primarily affect the individual child and not others around the child e.g. Inhibited or over-controlled behaviours, including withdrawal, worry, and emotional responses.
Component Four of the KidsMatter Framework provides a list of signs for babies, toddlers and preschoolers that may indicate a child in your care requires further support.
Deciding to seek help
The decision to seek professional help for a child and their family, or educators, can be arrived at by considering and documenting what we know about concerning behaviours in terms of their:
- Frequency – How often does the behaviour happen?
- Severity – How does the child’s behaviour compare to other children’s behaviours within the same age group? Does it interfere with everyday functioning?
- Persistence – When did the behaviour start and how long has it been going on? Does the behaviour only occur in certain situations, or across multiple situations?
- Pervasiveness – Where does the behaviour occur? Home, child care service, when visiting family/friends.
Considering the frequency, severity, persistence and pervasiveness of behaviours in conjunction with the KidsMatter BETLS model can assist educators who are observing and documenting what they know and notice about a child.
The BETLS Observation and Reflection chart is a useful tool for all educators.
Over time, documenting observations using the BETLS model will provide a comprehensive overview of the child’s behaviour and educators’ reflections. Remember to share your concerns with colleagues, who spend time with the child, and a leader in your setting. They could provide valuable information and support too.
Sharing information with families
After gathering your observations, it’s time to think about sharing these with the child’s family. Sometimes talking with parents or carers can be daunting, but sharing information is important.
This ‘Discussing Concerns’ flow chart on p.80 provides useful guidelines for talking with parents and carers about a concern. Essentially, you will need to consider:
- How you will prepare for the meeting
- What you will say
- How you will respond to the parent’s feelings and reactions
- How you will follow up with parents after the meeting.
To help everyone confidently share their concerns it is worth working on establishing and maintaining positive relationships with families and knowing the established information sharing guidelines or procedures in your setting.
Seeking professional advice and support
- Displaying brochures, flyers, parenting information and a list of high quality websites
- Gathering a list of local support services and having the information readily available to families when they need it. Resources and professional services available vary from state to state, so find out what is available in your area
- Making connections with local external service providers and asking these questions. Becoming aware of what and how they do what they do and sharing this with families can reduce barriers to accessing support
- Working to address stigma related to mental health difficulties by having open, easy conversations about mental health related topics. You could create opportunities for these in your curriculum planning.