Nurturing children’s mental health from the start
Where are we now?
‘’Mental health’’, ‘’adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)’’, ‘’neuroscience’’ and ‘’self-regulation’’ are just a few terms enjoying attention in Early Years (EY) arenas at present, with leadership teams, teachers and education consultants each attempting to make sense of them and apply them to their practice. You may well be thinking that this is a positive step for the workforce and that policy-makers are seeing sense. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
This article (the first of two) will explore a key reason why, which affects everyone who has children or who educates and cares for them in a professional context – this being self-regulation (SR).
In England, the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Early Learning Goals (ELGs) met with much criticism, given its reduced emphasis on physical development and, particularly, the introduction of self-regulation (SR). Without labouring this point too much, introducing a weighty concept like SR without aligning it to urgent revision of workforce qualifications, training and CPD will prove damaging to children and practitioners alike.
Schooling in Scotland
This issue led me to think about the provision of care and education in Scotland, including its Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). I wanted to build a clearer picture of provision under the CfE to see where fundamental difference lay that affects how we view the role of education and indeed educators, so I did some research. In Scotland, it seems provision is far more child and family-centred, with hundreds of easily accessible public health campaigns and initiatives to help support families build healthier attachments with their children, with a strong focus on pre-birth. The following trilogy of documents are referred to as standard practice, particularly in EY provision:
- The Curriculum for Excellence (2008)
- Building the Ambition (2014)
- Getting It Right for Every Child (2012).
All are focused on children’s attachments, mental well-being and ability to self-regulate. The Early Level of CfE gives practitioners freedom to interpret it in ways which best suit the individual child. Alice Sharp, Managing Director of Experiential Play, is unequivocal in her praise of these guidance documents explaining that:
The Curriculum for Excellence is great. We don’t see it as curriculum but a right, so it is addressed in our trilogy of documents (Building the Ambition, Growing Up in Scotland and Getting It Right for Every Child). We never use one without the other.
The impact of early ‘’schoolification’’ on child mental health
But, while reading through these documents it occurred me that all this (much needed) emphasis on nurture, healthy attachments and reciprocity will all but disappear when children start school. The 2017-2018 school year saw the introduction of the Scottish Government’s tablet-based National Standardised Assessment (SNSA) with Primary 1 children required to sit a test in literacy and numeracy.
Since many four- and five-year-old children are not developmentally ready for literacy/numeracy skills, teachers will need to use behaviour management strategies to keep them on task, doing more harm and no good. Below is just a snapshot of some feedback from teachers forced to test their children in Scotland:
A curriculum with an overarching emphasis on preparing children for the world of work through a focus on the three Rs is not sending the ‘’right’’ message to Early Years practitioners, children or their parents. Because of this poorly judged priority, ill-informed practices are likely to follow (i.e. top-down pressure to achieve competence in academic subjects and the resulting archaic ‘’behaviour management’’ policies and procedures). It’s as if a bell rings and someone calls out ‘’that’s enough! Time for the real learning to commence!’’
In England, we are currently faced with the re-introduction of the Baseline Assessment in England in 2020, at the beginning of the reception year (the equivalent of Scotland’s P1). How on earth can these totally meaningless, irrelevant and abstract tests be deemed an accurate picture of children’s ability? Especially as they cause deep distress in children who are far too young, can barely read (if at all) and often have sensory integration difficulties or have experienced trauma?
All these – and much more, shape a child’s neurological development and subsequent behaviour, indeed they are at the child’s core sense of self. Despite the growing raft of advice outlining the damage caused by early testing on mental and emotional health on a nation of children already struggling to cope, coupled with intense campaigning and reviews, both the P1 SNSA and England’s Baseline Assessment will be going ahead.
No labelling and more understanding please!
It seems that our governments are interested in pushing academic subjects over and above the nurturing the mental health of children. The ‘’behaviour management’’ policies and practices that follow are therefore inevitable. We are hence left with the ‘‘naming and shaming’’ of children through strategies that serve no other purpose than to achieve compliance through fear of this humiliation This insistence on labelling children does not lead to good outcomes for the child; instead it perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Draconian and outmoded policies and procedures which advocate the use of ignoring, time out, isolation, exclusion or issuing red cards do nothing to change children’s thinking or internal strategies, because there is no co-regulation of emotional responses and resulting behaviour. Instead, these forms of ‘behaviour management’ put them in a state of further distress. Feelings of humiliation, anger and stress are common, which actually derail healthy brain development. Dr Dan Siegel (2017) tells us:
‘When the response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. Brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.’
And as Professor Bessell van der Kolk (2014) explains:
‘Sadly, our education system tends to bypass the emotional-engagement system, and focuses instead, on recruiting the cognitive capacities of the mind. Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programmes continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are music, physical education and anything else involving movement, play and joyful engagement.’
Being pressured to read, write and reckon at an increasingly younger age is causing stress and anxiety in children. This must stop. Earlier this year, the mental health charity, Young Minds wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, stating that pupils’ well-being should be considered as important as academic achievement, calling for full funding of well-being initiatives. While some settings are taking the initiative and building in time to connect with children to better nurture their psychological well-being, there is a lack of encouragement from policy-makers and school for them to do so. This results in few settings daring to put greater emphasis on nurturing children’s psychological well-being over academic outcomes because quite simply, it is not viewed as important enough.
We need to see emotional vocabulary above those academic outcomes – alongside self-regulation. We need our children to feel happy, secure and to be resilient before we can expect any of those academic outcomes to be attained, especially at such an early age.
Watch out for Part 2 of this blog, in which Mine Conkbayir explains the healthy development of self-regulation (SR).
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