As practitioners we know only too well how important supporting children’s personal, social and emotional development is, particularly in today’s soceity where children’s mental health (and mental health in general) is so prevalent. There are staggering statistics from the Mental Health Foundation that say at least 1 in 10 children (aged 5 – 16 years) experience some form of mental illness (including anxiety and depression) as a direct response of things they have experienced, yet as many as 70% of these children will not have received sufficient interventions within their early years. (www.mentalhealth.org.uk)
So what can we do as practitioners to reduce these staggering statistics and equip our children’s emotional arsenal adequately enough to deal with the trials and tribulations the modern world puts upon them as they grow up?
As a setting, we place the children’s emotional development, resilience and intelligence at the forefront of everything we do, because how can we expect children to learn literacy, maths and problem solving skills when they aren’t emotionally ready to learn? We both pride ourselves on our extensive experiences in supporting children with varying emotional needs and use our previous experiences to support the children we care for, ensuring they are aware of their emotions, what they mean, how to manage them before developing their understanding of the emotional needs of others and how we can be mindful and supportive of each other in order to develop friendships and relationships.
This sounds a little too heavy for children aged between 0-5 years doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Encouraging children to be emotionally intelligent and resilient doesn’t have to be difficult; the earlier we introduce children to becoming aware of and feeling their emotions, the more likely they will be to grow into emotionally balanced and intelligent young people.
Being experienced and knowledgeable practitioners, we know that the behaviours children display is an outwards response of the emotions they are feeling and trying to process, and it is our job to not only support them with processing these emotions but also to allow them to truly ‘feel’ their emotions before understanding why they are feeling them and how to deal with them and process them adequately. Children need the opportunities to experience a wide range of emotions in order to develop the appropriate skills to recognise, identify and manage each emotion; if we try to ‘protect’ children from ‘negative’ feelings (anger, sadness, fear) then how will they ever possess the emotional tools to process these emotions constructively.
At Pebbles Childcare, we firmly believe that one of the most effective tools in supporting children in understanding and ‘owning’ their emotions is language. The words we use to identify, recognise, discuss and process emotions and behaviours has a significant impact on how children will react, respond and understand the varying emotions they feel. For example; instead of saying “Don’t be scared” when a child is feeling fearful, ask them “What are you scared of?”, “Why are you feeling scared?”, “What scares you about this?” This way, the child begins to mentally (and sometimes verbally where developmentally appropriate) process the emotion and feelings they are experiencing, and dissect it to begin to understand ‘why’ they feel this type of emotion and how to overcome it with the support of a familiar adult. Similarly, simply telling a child “Stop crying”, “You don’t need to cry”, doesn’t support their emotional intelligence and enable them to investigate why they are crying or what it is that is causing them to feel upset.
It is our job as childcare providers to support the children in our care in understanding and dealing with their emotions, in addition to supporting them in understanding and being empathic towards the feelings and emotions of other children in the setting too.
As adults, we know that emotionally we all have different triggers, different ways of dealing with the emotions we experience; children are exactly the same and will all process and react a range of emotions in varying levels of behaviour, it is our duty as their key people to determine, understand and support each child’s individual emotional range, find tools to support them in processing and understanding each emotion, before encouraging them to identify and support the emotions of their peers.
Home-based childcare is the perfect environment for young children to grow, express, explore and develop their understanding of their emotions due to the smaller ratios and the intensity and familiarity of the relationships they will develop, not only with us as practitioners but with each other too.
In our opinion, an emotionally rich environment is supported by not only emotionally intelligent adults, but also with resources that provide children with the opportunity to explore different emotions of different people, practice identifying various emotions as well as the opportunity to practice how to support and process the emotions of others. We provide various resources to support children in exploring these things through their play and in their own time, which we believe is fundamental to cementing their learning and understanding of emotions. The children in our setting have the opportunity to recognise and identify the facial expressions that different emotions present, through our ‘Eggspression’ dolls as well as emotion flashcards. We provide a wide variety of stories and books that discuss and explore different real-life scenarios that can unleash different emotions (parental separation, moving house, the transition to school or to a new setting, a new baby to name but a few) and explore how these are addressed and managed through stories as well as a vast array of imaginative play experiences to practice and develop the skills needed to identify and support the emotions of others.
Where developmentally appropriate, we have introduced simple mindfulness activities and techniques to provide the children with the time and space to think about, feel and process their feelings in a constructive and calm way. The children participate in regular yoga sessions, focusing on movements that enable them to breathe, take control of their body and mind and clear and focus on each movement and breath they are taking which instills a feeling of calm amongst the children. For some of our older children, we have also worked with them to make their own ‘Worry Jars’, a small jar that the children can create freely with, combining coloured water and glitter/sequins/buttons. The message behind these jars is that when the child feels angry/sad/anxious they can physically express these feelings by shaking the jar vigorously and calm themselves by focusing on watching the glitter/sequins/buttons settle; therefore allowing the child time to mindfully focus on their feelings and the process of watching the materials settle provides the child’s feelings to settle and calm too. These jars not only support the child in managing their emotions productively but also provide the child with ownership of their own emotions and behaviour management.
We are by no means mental health experts and so we spoke to mental health nurse and parent of G&J, Zoe O’Shea to get a professional perspective on children’s mental health and the importance of knowing how to adequately support children’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Here’s what she had to say:
“I find being a mother and a mental health nurse an awful combination sometimes! It makes me acutely aware of all the factors that could play a part in triggering anxiety, depression and many other mental health disorders in my children, the old but timeless nature/nurture argument plays on my mind a lot! Before children I was convinced that the impact of the childhood environment was the main factor in shaping personality, but now I know that although it is extremely important for a child to have a nurturing environment biological factors are also very much at play. Even if our children have been brought up in the same environment with the same key relationships, we are aware of their differences as individuals, one child may be ‘laid back’ compared to their ‘sensitive’ sibling.
As a mental health nurse for the past 13 years I have observed several factors to people that are mentally healthy; they have a good support network, they have purpose and meaning in their lives and they look after themselves (most of the time!) they also tend to have positive attitudes and good problem solving skills. Whereas, people who are not mentally well all the time tend to lack a strong social structure that holds them and keeps them safe at tough times, they find it difficult to be around others and find social situations anxiety provoking, they have low self esteem and may have a more “glass half empty” approach to life. I am not talking about people with clear diagnosable mental illnesses,( I know many people with bi polar who lead happy lives, are very busy, have families that love them very much and are supportive!) I’m talking about people who have longstanding psychological difficulties sometimes because of adverse life events or simply because this is their personality.
But what about the people who have been through really tough times, don’t have much support, but still seem to take life in their stride and have a happy disposition? This is where resilience is key.
Some people seem to come out of the womb naturally resilient, but there are also those that find this harder to find; but it can be taught! I believe in childcare settings is where this begins; strong attachments are key to building resilience, having a safe environment to practice these skills and strong role models who are also resilient showing you how to handle life’s ups and downs and when it does get tough some comforting words, a cuddle and compassion can help children not to get so overwhelmed and shamed by their feelings.
Learning how to feel, label our emotions and work out what to do with them for me is the foundation of getting through life healthy in your own mind.”
In summary, we all have a role to play as professionals and parents to ensure that we know how to adequately support the mental health and emotional intelligence of our young children in order to support them in growing into emotionally balanced young adults.