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Founder’s Column: A Sobering Reminder of Our Role in Shaping Children’s Futures

TRIGGER WARNING: SELF HARM - This post makes reference to a recent study on self-harm.

Sam Green is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of That Nursery Life. In his latest thought-piece he considers the recent disturbing findings from Cambridge University regarding the fact that the early warning signs of future self harm can occur within early years children, and what that can mean for our practice.

Can Teenage Self-Harm Really Be Detected in Early Years?

As I do most days, I sat scrolling through the BBC News app while having my first cup of coffee this morning when a particular story caught my eye. This was the headline:

Self-harm warning signs can appear decade earlier

When I tapped through to read the story my initial expectation was this would be an interesting piece about the slow simmer of distress which eventually builds into the sort of acute mental illness where a person causes themselves intentional harm. What I wasn’t prepared for was the implication this news article has for the early years.

What was the study?

At the turn of the new millennium, University College London established the “Millennium Cohort Study” which follows a group of around 19,000 young people born in the UK between 2000 and 2002. The study periodically checks in with this group to capture new data on them, their lives, and their experiences. This long-term project is a wealth of valuable data which is then used in a host of different studies and analyses.

The study which the BBC News article was referring to used data from around 11,000 of those young people in the MCS. The researchers identified those young people in the group who had self-harmed by the time they were 14, and then used Artificial Intelligence to trawl back through all the historical data for those young people to see if there were any common indicators which could be used to predict the self-harm which eventually took place.

What were the results?

The study found that there were two distinct groups of young people who had self-harmed at age 14. The first group (379 individuals) had a long history of mental illness throughout their childhood and early adolescence, whilst the second group (905 individuals) self-harmed without a prior history of mental illness. Remarkably, the self-harm in both groups could be predicted almost a decade earlier, when the children were just 4 or 5 years old.

For the first group, signs of poor emotional regulation, early experiences of bullying, and caregivers with their own emotional challenges were the strongest predictors of teenage self-harm. The second group showed less consistent signs in their early years but displayed a greater willingness to take risks and less secure relationships with peers and family in later childhood.

What does this mean for our work in early years?

It is heart-breaking to think that the children we care for today, so full of enthusiasm and fascination with the world and their place in it, could already be setting out on a path which – before they even reach adulthood – result in them doing themselves intentional harm.

Without having experienced it, trying to comprehend how someone can reach a point where they want or even need to cause themselves pain and harm is almost impossible.

So, does this research suggest that precursor signs of self-harming behaviour is another thing Early Years Professionals need to be alert to when observing the development and progress of children in their care?

I don’t think it does, or rather I think that is far too extreme a response to one individual study. Instead, this research has brought home for me yet again the almost incalculable importance of a child’s early years on the rest of their life.

Through our careers we have all seen children who, even at age 2 or 3, are already on the periphery of social groups within our settings. We have cared for children who are growing up in homes where emotions are managed poorly and have found ourselves becoming the emotional role models instead. We have known children who are always the first to climb on something they shouldn’t, or the one to try and let go of a hand close to a busy road to gain the attention and admiration of their peers.

It would be a complete mistake to conclude that each of these children will unavoidably go on to self-harm as teenagers, and we must be mindful that more research is needed to tease out what relationships are causal vs ones of association in this study, it does provide a sobering reminder about the importance of the job we do and the vital role of insightful observation.

You may be interested in this article of not confusing observation with recording by Dr Stella Louis here.

The reminder that challenges that can overwhelm teenagers and adults can have observable roots in early childhood emphasises the need for us all to be always on our A-Game, ready to model healthy behaviour, address small problems before they can become big ones, and to help every child have the best possible start they can.

What do you think?

After I finished my coffee this morning, I sent a link to the BBC News article to TNL’s Content Team to get their opinion on whether this is a story we should cover. I walked right into that one, and sure enough their response was, “Yes, great idea! Can you write a piece with your reaction?”.

I’ll be straight with you, I was wary. Talking about mental illness, especially where it relates directly to the mental health of children, is often a sure-fire way to set off a Twitter storm. So, prove my nervousness unnecessary! Share your thoughts below on what I’ve written, on the research itself, and on what impact these ideas have on you as an Early Years Professional.