Anna McCallum explores how now more than ever, after a year of unprecedented disruption and turmoil, we need to be giving young children the tools to understand their mental health.
Personally, when it comes to mental wellbeing, I do not think there is such a thing as ‘too young’. Children need to know that whatever they are feeling, it is ok and there are ways to handle strong emotions. The aftermath of the COVID pandemic is likely to result in a generation of many anxious children with unhealthy attachments; indeed, we can see it happening already.
We may begin to find that the majority of new children starting nursery take longer to settle. They will experience enormous emotions that they cannot regulate through no fault of their own. These children will have never been away from their parents or caregivers, so once that it is time to do so it is understandably devastating for them.
There is no way of avoiding the fact that the entire country has been locked at home with little to no social interaction and I do not doubt it may happen again at some point in the future, but what we can do is try to reverse the possible effects of lockdown by giving children the tools to become emotionally intelligent and self-aware.
A whole section of the EYFS is dedicated to ‘personal, social and emotional development’. We know that this is referred to as a prime area of learning, indicating its importance, and I would argue that for at least the next 12 months emotional development should be the most important area of learning for any educational setting. Now I do not mean that we should focus solely on emotions and little else, of course children need to continue developing in all areas, but we may need to concentrate more energy into their feelings and welling.
A good place to start is to simply acknowledge and validate a child’s feelings. Allowing them to know that they have been heard and that someone knows how they feel can be incredibly powerful and soothing. A simple statement such as “I know that you are upset, you must feel very sad right now” will let them know you understand and can even open up a dialogue about how they feel. Even just getting a teary “yes” in response identifies their emotion and they can begin to overcome it now that it has been put it into words for them. Another response such as “no I’m cross” is still identifying their initial emotion and then we can work together to help them feel more balanced.
Teaching mindful techniques is significant in assisting children with managing their emotions and can be done from an incredibly young age. We can show them how to breathe in a number of effective ways which can reduce anxiety, lower rage, and help them feel grounded during difficult moments. Performing children’s yoga is a quality way of introducing self-awareness and emotional control and is really enjoyable for them and for adults. A quick 10-minute daily session can be undeniably beneficial for them and is also great for promoting their physical health, which as we know is closely linked to positive mental health.
At my setting we have a growing selection of emotion-based resources, some of which were free as I make them myself due to their simplicity. We have emotion spoons which are literally wooden spoons, each with a distinguishable emotion painted on them. The children select one, we identify it, we make the face, and we discuss what makes us feel that way and what we can do to feel better if necessary. We have an emotions book which is a similar premise, but instead it has photographs of real people demonstrating a variety of feelings which we then discuss in a similar way. We also have basic laminated faces which the children can use with playdoh to create certain features which then portray different emotions.
If there is money available to be spent on emotion-based resources then by all means go ahead, there are plenty of brilliant options out there, but please bear in mind that they do not need to be expensive if the budget does not allow. Small mirrors are a great and inexpensive way for children to experiment with facial expressions and identify how someone may be feeling, as are felt faces and some puzzles. If more resources are needed there are a number of ways to gain them; sometimes we just need think outside the box.
It is also important to help children not only know their own feelings but to also recognise and understand the emotions of others. Empathy and sympathy can sadly be in short supply and we should try and teach it at any given opportunity. By allowing children to realise and acknowledge how others feel, we will help them become more considerate, generous, and respectful, enabling them to help each other through their short comings.
The tiny people in our care can experience such colossal emotions and it is our job to help them learn about them, understand them, and ultimately control them. It is perfectly fine to experience emotions such as anger, sorrow, and anxiety, but children should not have to endure them for extended periods of time, causing irreversible damage to their mental health.
How do you promote positive mental health at your setting? Join the conversation and share your ideas using the hashtag #mynurserylife.