Mental Health in Early Childhood Early childhood mental health (birth to 5 years) is a child’s growing capacity to do these things, all in the cultural context of family and community (adapted from ZERO TO THREE):
Experience, regulate, and express emotions
Develop close, secure, relationships
Explore the surroundings and learn. Early childhood mental health is the same as social emotional development.8 Social and emotional development is important to early learning. Many social-emotional qualities—such as curiosity; self-confidence as a learner; self-control of attention, thinking, and impulses; and initiative in developing new ideas—are essential to learning at any age. Learning, problem solving, and creativity rely on these social-emotional and motivational qualities as well as basic cognitive skills. When learning occurs in groups, such as in preschool classrooms or family child care programs, the social environment significantly influences how learning occurs. When young children enjoy interacting with adults and other children, they are more enthusiastic about activities and participate more. Furthermore, the interest and enthusiasm of others fuels the child’s own excitement about learning, and children are also motivated by others’ acknowledgment of the child’s accomplishments.9 It is important because it affects a child’s ability to:
Express their needs
Get along with others
Persist when challenged
Manage their emotions
Be curious and interested in learning10 Interviews with preschool and kindergarten teachers indicate that children who have the greatest difficulties in learning are hindered by the lack of these social-emotional qualities more than by the inability to identify letters or numbers. Children who are delayed or impaired in developing these social-emotional and motivational qualities:
may have difficulty controlling their emotions or behavior,
may not readily work independently or in a group,
often appear to lack curiosity or be uninterested in learning, and
may have difficulties getting along with others, which may undermine the learning environment for all children11
Children’s mental health is critical to their later school success as well. Children who
are able to follow directions and pay attention are able to focus on learning.
can express their feelings are able to get help when they need it.
learn to persist when frustrated can overcome challenges.
feel good about themselves are able to work on their own.