Supporting Mental Health Conversations in the Early Years

Supporting Mental Health Conversations in the Early Years

Mental Health Awareness Week is endorsed by the World Federation for Mental Health and marked in over 150 countries. Creating awareness around mental health is important for all ages.

In this post, Kelly Goodsir - early childhood educator, pedagogical leader at Hawthorn Early Years in Melbourne, Australia and author of "My Family is a Team – A Story about Mental Illness" shares her insights into the importance of conversations between educators and families to foster strong wellbeing networks for children.

In October, Mental Health Week in Australia provides an opportunity to ‘shine the light’ on important conversations that affect many people's lives, including those who walk into our early learning services everyday.

Establishing positive mental health and wellbeing starts early in life, which is no surprise to those of us who work with children. The importance we place on supporting children’s emotional competence is a huge part of this conversation. But how comfortable are we really, in moving beneath the surface when it comes to mental health conversations?

How comfortable are you with explaining the important factors associated with positive mental health?  

For many of us it can be difficult. We struggle to know how to go about simplifying what we know is a complex message, especially for an audience of young children.  Supporting mental health conversations requires more than simply identifying feelings by singing “if you’re happy and you know it” and being physically present in a child’s life. It is the quality of the relationship that matters the most!

Caring about and paying attention to the things that matter to children and families demonstrates emotional competence. Being curious and engaged educators, you are able to show not just how much you enjoy being with children, but you also provide good building blocks for positive mental health.

It is important to push past the technicalities of our work and delve beneath the surface to really engage authentically with families. In my experience this is where the important conversations come from. Sometimes this might mean moving beyond your own comfort zone. It might also mean seeking out more knowledge about factors contributing to positive mental health, such as the importance of getting along with others, positive social and emotional interactions to name a few. As an educator it is equally important to have a solid grounding in aspects of childhood development and family relationships.

This intersection of knowledge and relationships supports our inter-personal skills as educators so that we are easily able to notice, recognise and respond to the ‘moments that matter’ in the lives of children and their families.

Family relationships matter

Children’s mental health and wellbeing is deeply connected to their experience within the family unit. Educators play an important role in building relationships and partnering with families. The most important way to establish this is through genuine, consistent communication that establishes trust.

Source: My Family Is a Team. Author Kelly Goodsir Illustrator Dina Theodoropoulos

Source: My Family Is a Team. Author Kelly Goodsir Illustrator Dina Theodoropoulos

Understanding risk and protective factors

Having a good understanding of both risk and protective factors for each child offers a strong basis for supporting children and families. These factors will be unique for each child, however building your educational program around protective factors such as strong trusting relationships, provides an important foundation for children to ‘bounce back’ when they experience difficulties. Reducing risk factors whilst increasing protective factors improves children’s long-term mental health outcomes. (Kidsmatter, 2016)

Mental health language – What to say?

What might this look like and how might it sound?

Recognizing the challenge for adults in knowing how to talk about mental health and wellbeing with children in the early years I was inspired to write and publish my own children’s book.

“My Family is a Team – A story about mental illness” is a children’s book that mirrors the real experience of a family with a dad who has bi-polar disorder.

I have written this book from the child’s perspective, to reflect their experience through the ‘fast days’ and ‘slow days’ of family life. This perspective offers a language that is inclusive and non-judgmental - both important factors in any conversation around mental health.

Viewing the family as a ‘team’ signifies the wide network of supports many families have in place such as: extended family, pets, doctors, early childhood services, community groups and many more. Each person on that team plays an important role in family health and wellbeing and together they contribute to positive mental health outcomes for children.

Source: Pixabay - Origami peace cranes

Source: Pixabay - Origami peace cranes

Whilst mental health week is a wonderful opportunity to make visible the important messages associated with wellbeing in children and families it is equally important that we engage in these conversations EVERY DAY. It is my hope that “My Family is a Team” is a book that is used for daily engagement as a provocation to acknowledge and support mental health conversations in the early years.

Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of families and children will sometimes mean knowing where to direct or guide families for support.  If you are concerned or would like to access further information to support children and families contact:

Kidsmatter Australia 

Beyond Blue - Australia

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand - mauri tu, mauri ora

Time to Change -  UK

Mental Health America

For further information about Kelly's pedagogical leadership, training and coaching and her book My Family is a Team – A story about mental illness  visit her website 

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