In most years, February can be a difficult month for some – the excesses of Christmas are forgotten, but the credit card balance is real; the cold weather sets in and most of us get up and come home in the dark, with the warmth of carefree summer days only a distant memory. Even the most resilient of us can find ourselves in the doldrums. But for others, the problem is more pronounced, and our mental health begins to suffer. This year, it’s not just the February blues that many of us are contending with, but the consequences of the last year: the lockdown restrictions, the economic downturn and the pressures of home schooling, lost loved ones, disappearing jobs and destroyed businesses are looming large. More of us than ever before are struggling, but at least we have our weekly family Zoom calls, our friends on the end of the phone, and we generally know that help is available if we choose to access it.
Think now about how these things have also affected our children and the children in our care. They have faced similar insecurities and disruption to their normal life. Things that the under 5s take for granted, like hugs, playing with friends and familiar faces have been taken away from them. Their routines have been adapted, they’ve been told that there are people they can see and people they can’t, and there is inevitably little research at present as to the impact this will have on their future social, emotional and mental development. Recently, there has been increasing media coverage of mental health issues and the stigma previously associated with mental health is gradually being chipped away, leading to honest debate and a search for solutions.
Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives. More alarmingly however, 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
That’s why this year’s Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (1 – 7th February) is more important than ever because we all need to be more aware of the impact on our children and ways we can help them. The theme for this year’s week is “Express Yourself”, which according to the official website, is about finding ways to “share feelings, thoughts, or ideas through creativity. This could be through art, music, writing and poetry, dance and drama, photography and film, and doing activities that make you feel good.” For children, it could be about having fun, playing their favourite game, singing nursery rhymes, or painting a picture – anything which can help them explore what it means to be them, restore a bit of normality and take their minds off any worries or anxieties.
What can nurseries do to help?
As providers of early years care, nursery leaders and practitioners are at the forefront of the fight to restore the balance. Around three children in every primary school class are now considered to have a mental health problem; many more struggle with issues such as bullying, bereavement, low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2019, there were 354,000 children and young people with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans – an increase of 11% from the 2018 figure. The increase was seen across all age groups, but the largest percentage increase was seen in the 0 – 5 age range (15% rise).
Prevention is always better than cure, so helping children and young people make sense of the world around them, encouraging them to talk about and express how they feel about events and situations in their life, and giving them coping strategies and ways to manage when things get tough, must be high on the agenda if we are to see progress.
There are resources on the website which schools and nurseries can download to help them introduce the relevant topics to students but as nursery practitioners, we should recognise too that children and adults communicate differently and build that awareness into our everyday practice. Whereas adults may have words to describe their feelings and may more easily make a connection between cause and effect, children often struggle to label their emotions - anxieties and frustrations can come across as poor behaviour or ‘naughtiness’ if not properly understood. This means that practitioners should look beyond behaviours and see what the child is trying to communicate – it could be they are struggling to comprehend their situation or to cope with extreme emotions, which if left unresolved, can lead to more problems including declining mental health.
Encouraging children to express themselves and share thoughts, feelings, and ideas, can be the release that they need, but it’s also important to recognise that expressing oneself is not a competition or about being the ‘best’ at something. As the website says, “It’s about finding a way to show who you are, and how you see the world, that can help you feel good about yourself.”
Things which help support children’s mental health include:
- Feeling loved and understood
- Feeling valued and safe
- Having a sense of belonging to a family/community or school
- Having some control over some aspects of their life
- Opportunities to learn and succeed
- A nutritious, balanced diet
- Good physical health with regular exercise
- Freedom and time to play indoors and outdoors
- A family that gets along most of the time
- Schools and nurseries that look out for wellbeing
- Participation in local activities
When children have good mental health, they are more able to develop the resilience they need cope with the vagaries of life and fulfil their true potential. As early years practitioners, we should be doing everything in our power to raise awareness of the issues and help alleviate the problem.
For more information, see: