Mental health advice for early childhood from KidsMatter

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  Published on Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Mental health advice for early childhood from KidsMatter

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Tuesday, 20 November 2018

In our society, we understand mental health to be a health concern or illness, and the stigma has impacted on how we seek help or support and respond to others.

KidsMatter offers information, resources, online professional learning and, if an early childhood services signs up, ongoing consultant support to increase community understanding of mental health, reduce stigma and improve mental health outcomes for everyone.

Everyone has mental health, and like physical health, it can range from 'good' to 'poor' and can change over time. Some very young children have mental health difficulties and early childhood communities are well placed to support these children and their families.

Good mental health

Good mental health in early childhood lays the foundations for positive mental health and wellbeing now and into the future. However, good mental health does not mean children will never have a 'bad day'. Occasionally feeling worried, sad, frustrated, or angry is normal.

These feelings only become a concern when they make it difficult for people to cope with day-to-day life. Having good mental health:

  • Is not about feeling happy all the time
  • Is about being able to experience and express feelings in different ways, to manage stressful or challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed
  • Is being able to develop and maintain relationships with others
  • Is learning and practicing good coping skills to manage feelings and deal with difficulties

KidsMatter definition: What is mental health in early childhood?

The following definition has been jointly developed by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and the Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council (2012):

'Mental health in early childhood is seen in the capacity of a young child within the context of their development, family, environment and culture to:

  • participate in the physical and social environment
  • form healthy and secure relationships
  • experience, regulate, understand and express emotions
  • understand and regulate their behaviour
  • interact appropriately with others, including peers
  • develop a secure sense of self

Early childhood mental health and wellbeing is related to healthy physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Early childhood development and life experiences contribute strongly to a person's mental health and wellbeing during childhood and later in life.'

Think about and talk with your team:

  • What would we notice about a 10-month-old who is mentally healthy?
  • What would we notice about a 3-year-old who is mentally healthy?
  • What would we notice about a 5 and half year old who is mentally healthy?

Mental health difficulties

Mental health difficulties have been defined as 'a very broad range of social, emotional or behavioural difficulties that may cause concern or distress. Mental health difficulties affect children's behaviour, feelings, and learning, relationships with others, as well as their physical health and wellbeing.

Often, the term 'emotional and/or behavioural difficulties' is the description used to talk about mental health difficulties in early childhood. It is also helpful to think about children’s mental health as ranging on a continuum from 'good mental health' to 'mental health difficulties'. Many people move from 'good mental health' to 'mental health difficulties' and back again over the course of a lifetime.

There are a range of reasons why young children behave the way they do, and many of them are not due to experiencing mental health difficulties. However, if children are showing signs of emotional and/or behavioural difficulties, making some careful observations of a child can help parents, carers and early childhood staff to work together on deciding the best way to support them.

Children with a mental health diagnosis can also move towards and experience good mental health when supported in an environment that meets their individual needs.

By observing children using the KidsMatter BETLS Observation Chart educators can notice, reflect on their practice and work supportively with the family to support a child's mental health.

Observing a child's behaviour, emotions, thoughts, learning and social relationships happens best when educators know children well and in the context of warm, responsive relationships.

To learn more about using the BETLS chart in your practice you can explore this Professional Learning Topic here and use the Tools and Guides to learn together.

Early recognition of children who may be experiencing emotional and/or behavioural difficulties means they can be referred to a mental health professional who can assess whether there is a significant concern present. Mental health professionals work in partnership with families and early childhood educators to come up with strategies to meet the individual needs of the child.

Community services can also be helpful as sometimes they offer groups or programs that are designed to support parenting, which can also have an influence on children's behaviour.

Developing helpful and supportive referral pathways is an important role of the early childhood service. Finding about local services will increase the likelihood that children and families will get the help they need.


Taking care of our mental health is something that is important for everyone. Adults play a pivotal role in children's health and development, and may at times need additional support for their own mental health to do the best job they can.

What are some of the things you do to take care of yourself and each other?

  • Listen to this message about taking care of yourself
  • Go for a walk
  • Make safe
  • Take breaks
  • Practice mindfulness and gratitude
  • Acknowledge, consider, celebrate
  • Spend time with friends
  • Grow
  • Seek help when you need it
  • Connect
  • Go for a run
  • Sleep well
  • Have a massage

For additional resources and additional reading click here.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Wednesday, 28 October 2020


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