Children’s Mental Health: Everyone’s Responsibility

Amelia’s parents contacted me because of a problem in Kindergarten. Her teachers reported that she often began to cry around lunchtime, and when they asked her why she was crying, she couldn’t answer them.  They tried to distract her, and even offered her a trip to the class “store”, (stocked with fun prizes) if she would cry for less than five minutes.  Unfortunately, nothing worked to soothe the child, and after 2 months of the same behavior, her parents sought my help.

Those of us who work with children have a unique opportunity to fix a challenge facing our field: parents, professionals and paraprofessionals do not share a common knowledge of emotional development. The good news is that supporting emotional development has the potential to become a fundamental link among all of us: parents; teachers; occupational, physical, and speech therapists; medical personnel; case managers; and administrators.We could transform what divides us into a unifying principle, transcending specialties and roles and uniting us in the common goal of enhancing outcomes for countless children.

Our fractionalization is rooted in the history of our various fields, all specialized to address different parts of human development. Professionals traditionally trained in education or in the rehabilitation fields, such as speech and occupational therapy, receive little cross-training in mental health, the “home” of social-emotional development.

Why is this important? Why should all childhood professionals pay attention to the messy business of emotions? Emotions help humans survive. They allow us to detect threats and respond to danger. Emotions, from the Latin root movere, “to move,” are what stir us into action. As a beacon of light guides a lost ship, emotions guide our behaviors.  

Guided by our emotions, human beings learn how to feel safe through social engagement. Social and emotional competence are linked. When we feel safe in body and mind, we can explore, take risks, learn and grow. When we don’t, we direct energy toward basic survival.                                        

Experts in neuroscience have confirmed that relationships are central to healthy brain development. Relationships build brain architecture and provide a foundation for a child’s future capacities. When we consider the critical link between emotions and relationships, it becomes clear that we cannot arbitrarily separate either from parenting, learning, cognitive functioning, physical health, occupational functioning, communication, or any other aspect of human development. This is why we all will benefit from a basic understanding of emotional development, and the meanings of children’s emotional states.

If Amelia’s teachers had known that the way to understand why she was crying was to first engage warmly and empathically, (without words, questions or incentives), they would have likely solved the problem with her. Children need to be in a calm, safe state of mind in order to organize their thoughts and share them with others.  The failure of the teacher’s strategy wasn’t for a lack of care or concern, but a lack of training in the basics of social and emotional learning.

Amelia wasn’t able to talk about why she was crying because she didn’t have the brain state to do so in those moments of stress. The activated brain state that I call the “green pathway” allows children to connect their feelings to their words. If a child isn’t in the green pathway, the first step isn’t to reason with her, but to engage with warmth and love.

Luckily, Amelia’s difficulties were eventually solved after a team meeting with her parents, teachers and myself.  Her mother explained that she had a special lunchtime ritual with Amelia, and lunchtime likely reminded her of how much she missed her. When her teacher decided to sit with her during lunchtime for a few weeks, her symptoms began to disappear.

Understanding and supporting children’s mental health shouldn’t “live” in the field of psychology and counseling. It must find its home in every parent, teacher and childhood provider’s toolbox.

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Excerpted from Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention.

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