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Early Childhood Mental Health

Updated August 28, 2022

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Early Childhood Mental Health essay

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This essay will first look at a brief history of Social and emotional aspects of flearning (SEAL) and a definition, it will then examine the neurological effects on a child’s brain and development, followed by the psychological aspects. After that it will consider how society plays a part in the emotional wellbeing of a child and this will then all be brought together to explore how this affects attainment in a school environment and what can be put into place to enhance the child’s outcome looking at how this can be monitored or evaluated.

Lastly it will consider the limitations of implementing SEAL into a school environment considering the impact on the wider curriculum. Social and emotional aspects of learning, otherwise known as SEAL is a relatively new concept within schools in the United Kingdom (UK). In 2005 90% of primary schools used the programme set out by the government, it was not until 2007 that secondary schools adopted it (Emery, 2016). The Labour government at the time wanted to push personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) to the forefront and make it a statutory part of the curriculum for all schools. However, in 2013 after a review, the new coalition government, through the department of education, stated that this was not a requirement, but all schools should deliver PSHE in some form (DfE, 2014). More recently in 2017 the green paper on mental health provision cited that all schools should have a trained designated person in charge of the mental health of its students (DfE, DHSC, 2018) this is to be in place by 2019.

SEAL is seen throughout a child’s development, within their family homelife and school journey. This can be facilitated by another person be it a familiar adult such as a parent, caregiver, teacher or indeed another child. However, learning can also come from within the person themselves. The Dalai Lama said that ‘if you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others…. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others’ (Hereford, 2018). This links to a definition for social and emotional learning thus being able to distinguish and cope with our emotions, resolve issues successfully, have achievable clear goals and create positive connections with others (Zins and Elias, no date).

There are many aspects to consider for a child to achieve this, these include the previously mentioned neurological, psychological and social factors. To consider the neurological influences on a child’s development we must start from the beginning, when a child is first born. The brain is developing immediately after birth, neural pathways and nerves are multiplying and connecting, creating synapses (Santer, Griffiths, Goodall, n,d, Sutton-Smith,1997), and it is already equipped to feel emotions, the section of the brain that is responsible for this is called the amygdala, this creates the emotion of fear or negative emotions (Davidson, 2008). As the child grows this can become intrenched and present itself as a flight or fight response (Schore, 2001), when this happens a child does not have the ability to think rationally, this is caused by the fast development of the right hand side of the brain in infants.

At this point it is crucial for the adult, for instance the teacher, to remain calm and not react inappropriately, this will lead to new pathways being formed inside the brain so the next time the child is presented with the same situation he or she is able to deal with it better (Geddes, 2012). It is believed that the amygdala is closely linked to another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, it is perceived that the way in which this part of the brain develops is intrinsically linked to the upbringing and environment around the infant, positive situations enhance positive results but equally it is said that negative influences will have negative conclusions (Graham et al, 2016, Davidson, 2008). This coincides with Skinners theory of operant conditioning, if a child is given a positive reinforcement such as a sticker or a simple well done they are likely to repeat that action, however, if a child is scolded due to a negative action they are less likely to repeat this (Psychestudy, 2018). When the prefrontal cortex works effectively the amygdala does not activate thus the individual is able to control their emotions effectively (Davidson, 2008).

It is suggested that this ability to control their emotions will influence them as they mature into adulthood, better cope with situations, improved peer relationships thus creating improved health, both physical and mental, therefore better job prospects and less likely to commit crime (Darling-Churchill and Lippman, 2016, Elias et al., 1997). However, if a child does not have the stimulation from the environment around them, both from influential peers, for instance the parents, caregivers or teachers, and stimuli from its surroundings, the brain will not create plasticity, and a pruning of existing neural pathways will occur (Griffiths, 2003). This will in turn lead to emotions not being regulated and could hinder an ability to work in school or develop positive relationships with others (Darling-Churchill and Lippman, 2016). Bowlby and his attachment theory (which will be discussed in more detail later) may concur with this, a child that does not have an attachment to a person is likely to suffer lower emotional well-being (Bowlby, 1982). As a child grows the brain becomes more developed, it was first thought that the brain grew as the child grew, in spurts with peaks at certain ages (Epstein, 1974 quoted by Crone and Ridderinkhof, 2011), this would coincide with Piaget’s theory on development.

It was suggested that whenever a child went through one of these spurts it would coincide with entering one of Piaget’s developmental periods for instance the Preoperational Stage at the age of two or the Concrete Operational Stage at seven (Fischer, Lazerson, 1984, Piaget, 1983). This was further backed up later by using an electro-encephalogram (EEG) (Crone and Ridderinkhof, 2011). However, other studies could not concur with this stating that although children do have some growth spurts in their brains at the same time as the different periods of Piaget’s theory it did not always coincide with spurts in cognitive growth (Fischer, Lazerson, 1984). Bruner and Vygotsky however, believe that there are no stages and that a child’s development is endless (Kozulin et al., 2003). If a child continues to develop in a flourishing environment the synapses in the brain continue to form and are covered with myelin to retain the information inside. When a child reaches five years old the part of the brain that controls the development of ‘social and emotional functioning’ and memory is complete but to ensure they continue to be healthy the child needs to be using the skills effectively (Garvey, 1991).

To do this, there needs to be a secure attachment formed with the people in his or her life, if this is absent then the psychological needs of that child cannot be met (Bowlby, 1982). Freud believed that the attachment formed with a baby to its mother is from being fed, however, a study carried out by Emerson and Schaffer in 1964 discovered that children form attachments to many peers including other family members, most of which would rarely feed them (Schaffer and Emerson, 1964) therefore it was the people around the child giving affection that gave way to the attachment this contradicted what Watson previously believed, that giving too much affection would spoil a child (Watson, 1928). Bowlby developed his attachment theory in 1969, he believed that without a secure attachment a child could struggle with issues of low self-esteem and depleted confidence. This could also link to them not being able to regulate their own feelings which in turn will hinder relationships in the future (Bowlby, 1982).

Just as children are born with the ability to feel fear Bowlby suggests that they are born with an instinctive need to form an attachment and that this attachment would be created at birth and never leave (Bowlby, 1969). Rutter (1981) believed that if a child did not form a secure attachment at birth this was called privation, this would cause clinginess and attention seeking behaviour which in turn could prevent lasting relationships in the future, although he did believe that with help this could be overcome (Rutter, 1981). Barnet and Bain concur suggesting that if the child does not form an attachment from birth they can still thrive later in life if there is a consistent adult in their lives such as a regular teacher, nonetheless this is not ideal (Barnet and Bain, 1986 cited by Geddes, 2012). Sroufe et al (1983) and Erikson et al (1982) believed that if a child had made this secure maternal attachment they were more able to learn, they would be less dependent on the teacher, but equally be more co-operative and able to be resilient to the demands of the classroom (Sroufe, Fox and Pancake, 1983, Erikson et al, 1982 cited by Geddes, 2012). Waters et al (1979) concurred, stating that children were more successful in their play, socially more capable and have a higher regard to others and their feelings (Waters et al, 1979 cited by Geddes, 2012). Goleman (1995) suggested that this ability to be able empathise with others meant that the child had a high emotional intelligence (EQ) he described EQ as being able to recognise your feelings and that of others and to be able to motivate yourself to be better (Goleman, 1995).

This was also a theory of Carol Dweck, she believed having a growth mindset could enhance children’s motivation to succeed, she thought if a child had a fixed mindset they believed they could not go any further. However, a child with a growth mindset believes that they can do better, thus having greater achievements and greater self-esteem (Dweck, 2015). To achieve this, praise is needed for effort not ability, in a study by Mueller and Dweck they found that children who received ability praise thrived only to fall back after a subsequent failure however children that had effort praise went on to be better even after failure (Mueller and Dweck, 1998). Kohn (1993) concurs, he suggests that praise should be for the person and not what they do or have done, he goes one step further by adding that you should avoid insincere praise and be very specific (Kohn, 1993).

Teachers in school can build upon this giving positive praise for children’s efforts in all areas, however at home this can be harder to achieve for many different reasons including those discussed next. Society today has changed immensely from that of even twenty years ago, social media, work life balance for parents and general media perceptions all play a huge part in children’s and family’s lives. Previously children were not bombarded with constant media coverage of the dangers that surround them, stranger danger was from the outside world not twenty-four hours over the internet and mothers were not working as many hours so were at home with their children. The government are trying to tackle the problems on social media where messages of harm and suicide are seen, by seeking total transparency within the companies, by implementing a social media code of practice, putting money into children’s digital literacy and supporting parents and carers (HM Government, 2018). The latest green paper produced by the government (2018) has taken into account that children’s mental health starts from when they are born, it states that they are putting money into supporting new mothers with their mental health, if the mother is emotionally well then the child has a better chance of that in later life, they want to focus on home life, supporting families with children with special needs and concentrating on the most vulnerable children and families. It cites that they are spending ‘more than ever before on mental health’ by adding £1.4 billion into the mental health services budget HM Government, 2018).

However, with the pressure being put upon children academically this could all be undone by the time these children reach senior school. The need for SEAL has never been greater to aid the emotional development of the next generation. A journal by Zins, Walberg and Weissberg (2004) states that children are feeling disillusioned, insecure and fearful, thus causing mental health issues. ‘One in every fifteen children and young people deliberately self-harm’ (Mental Health Foundation, 2006), treatments in hospital have gone up by sixty eight percent in the last ten years (YoungMinds, 2011) and ‘Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds’ (Stanford children’s health, 2018). For SEAL in schools to be effective, it needs to involve the children, parents or carers, teachers, and the wider community (Elias et al, 1997, CASEL, 2003, DfE,2015).

Each of these influences will impact the child (EPPI, 2004). Within a school environment it is paramount that the whole child is taken into consideration. Both their academic and emotional development is intrinsically linked, their wellbeing, and emotional health can affect their learning and cognitive development, therefore SEAL should be an integral part of school life (Davies, 2013, CASEL, 2003, Elias et al, 1997). There are many factors that can have an influence on a child within the classroom, in a document produced by the DfE, it states that there are at least four, the climate of the classroom, the teacher’s characteristics and their skill set, and not forgetting the resources available (Hay et al, 2000). Firstly, the climate of the classroom needs to be safe and supportive this will enable a child to feel like they belong which in turn will lead to a child succeeding and being resilient (DfE, 2016).

Bloom (1964) believed that an environment can inspire or be detriment to a child’s behaviour, Bandura (1977) concurs, stating that the conditions of the classroom can have a big impact on how a child will respond. It is not only the environment itself that enables a child to feel safe and secure, this also includes how the adult, be it a teacher or teaching assistant, interacts with the child, the way in which they behave will influence the pupil’s response. This links to a study conducted by Reinke it stated that to achieve a high level of behaviour in the classroom the teacher should use positive praise, if more negative responses were being used then it would create more disruptive behaviour (Reinke et al, 2012). Bandura concurs, he believed that the child will pick up on the mannerisms of the adult, if he or she is being kind for instance, the child would then remember this and in future would replicate it, depending on the outcome of this the child would decide to repeat or not later (Bandura, 1977).

Vygotsky (Pritchard, A. and Woollard, J, 2010) agrees believing that children learn from other people who are around them, by socially interacting with a more intellectual person, this is backed up by the teaching standards which state that pupils should be treated with dignity and a mutual respect be built between both the teacher and pupil (DfE, 2011). Davies suggests that SEAL influences a child’s lifelong learning both academically and non-academically, he believes that emotions can either improve or hamper a child’s learning and that learning is a social event between both the pupil, teacher and peers (Davies, 2013). However, there are limitations to SEAL being implemented, a DfE document (2010) considering a study of nine schools found results of success to be patchy, in some a lack of whole school approach hindered the programme. Other obstacles were some of the schools were just using the resources they found interesting not running the whole program, stating it was not anything they had not come across before, energy and effort needed was also a barrier especially when other pressures of school life were apparent and lack of instant results, it was not seen as an instant fix (DfE. 2010).

These are all limitations seen by schools with an increasing demand being placed on attainment. However, the Targeted Mental Health in Schools programme states that you can reduce behaviour problems in primary school age children by implementing support for mental health (DfE, 2011). It states that there are thirteen different categories of ‘mental health work’ that goes on in schools. Among these are categories for the children including ‘social and emotional development, information for pupils, peer support, group and individual therapies and behaviour support’. For the adults it includes ‘training for both the parents and staff as well as counselling for both too’ (DfE, 2011). This support comes in the form of packs made up from the government, small group and one to one initiatives, and general resources for educators to use.

As previously mentioned some children can have low self-esteem, the resources used in school to aid this could be ELSA, children who have trouble making friends, keeping friends, or are socially inept can use programmes such as Socially Speaking or . For help with children who need to limit their time at school for issues surrounding behaviour or disabilities a social timetable can be effective, this is It is not only the extra resources and interventions that can have a positive impact, it is also what is put into place on daily basis within the classroom. To provide a successful enabling environment for the children, a place where all children feel empowered, displays can be used depicting positive images or mottos, the children’s interests considered around the classroom, a feeling of belonging can be achieved by simple resources such as named pegs, a place to store their possessions, and their work being proudly displayed. Monitoring of the environment can be part of the child’s daily routine to promote a sense of pride and an emotions board to evaluate how a child is feeling throughout the day could be used. All of these, although simple can have a big impact on a child’s emotional well-being (Weare, 2015).

In conclusion there are many factors that can influence a child throughout their development, this essay has looked at the neurological, what affects the brain and cognitive thinking, psychological, the effects on the child through the way in which they are treated and social, the environmental factors surrounding the child. It has considered the differing opinions of theorists, experts and governments, reflecting on which is the best way forward, and the resources, programmes or interventions within SEAL and their limitations. From this it is apparent that SEAL is essential for all children not only for their social and emotional welfare but also for their success throughout their school journey and home life.

Early Childhood Mental Health essay

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