Mental health

​Early childhood professionals play an important role in promoting healthy minds and preparing children for success, engagement and satisfaction in later life.

Social and emotional learning and teaching

The foundations for social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing are laid during early childhood. Fundamental to this is the secure attachments children form through warm and respectful relationships with familiar adults.

These relationships protect, regulate and buffer children. They provide a secure base that help children to feel safe and confident to try new things and to learn, and build resilience in children to help them cope with daily challenges and stressors.

Early childhood professionals foster children’s social and emotional learning by:

  • building trusting relationships which foster strong attachments
  • prioritising relationships which focus on nurturing and offering consistent emotional supports
  • initiating warm, reciprocal relationships with children
  • providing safe and stimulating environments for children
  • respect the views and feelings of each child
  • show genuine affection, understanding and respect for all children
  • talk with children about their emotions and responses to events with a view to supporting their understandings of emotional regulation and self-control
  • ensure that all children experience pride in their attempts and achievements
  • build upon culturally valued child rearing practices and approaches to learning
  • are emotionally available and support children’s expression of their thoughts and feelings
  • recognise that feelings of distress, fear or  discomfort may take some time to resolve
  • acknowledge each child’s uniqueness in positive ways
  • actively support the maintenance of home language and culture
  • model care, empathy and respect for children, staff and families.

Family and community partnerships

Children learn and develop within the context of their family and their community. Families are children’s first and most enduring educators.

The Victorian early years learning and development framework and national early years learning framework emphasise the importance of professionals’ engagement with family centred practice by respecting the pivotal role of families in children’s lives.

This partnership approach is based on understanding each other’s expectations and attitudes, and building on the strength of each others’ knowledge. In genuine partnerships, families and early childhood professionals:

  • value each other’s knowledge of each child
  • value each other’s contributions to and roles in each child’s life
  • trust each other
  • communicate freely and respectfully with each other
  • share insights and perspectives about each child
  • engage in shared decision-making.

Using a genuine partnership approach enables early childhood professionals to promote children’s mental health and wellbeing, especially when they:

  • use families’ understanding of their children to support shared decision-making about each child’s learning and development
  • create a welcoming and culturally inclusive environment where all families are encouraged to participate in and contribute to children’s learning and development experiences
  • actively engage families and children in planning children’s learning and development
  • provide feedback to families on their children’s learning and information about how families can further advance children’s learning and development at home and in the community
  • ensure that the interests, abilities and culture of every child and their family are understood, valued and respected
  • support families to develop a sense of place, identity and a connection to the setting
  • build connections between the early childhood setting and the local community.

Building positive environments

Many children attend an early childhood setting. Quality early childhood settings ensure the learning environment support children’s positive mental health.

It is essential that early childhood professionals attend to children’s wellbeing by providing warm, trusting relationships, predictable and safe environments.

Early childhood professionals should:

  • create physical environments that support a range of opportunities for learning and physical activity, both indoors and outdoors
  • plan learning environments with appropriate levels of challenge where children are encouraged to explore, experiment and take appropriate risks in their learning
  • provide babies and toddlers with resources that offer challenge, intrigue and surprise, support their investigations and share their enjoyment
  • provide sensory and exploratory experiences with natural and processed materials
  • provide rich and diverse resources that are familiar to children
  • build connections between the early childhood setting and the local community
  • promote a sense of community within the early childhood setting
  • model and reinforce health, nutrition and personal hygiene practices with children
  • provide a range of active and restful experiences throughout the day and support children to make decisions regarding participation
  • think carefully about how children are grouped for play, considering possibilities for peer scaffolding.

Mental health promotion

Holistic approaches to teaching and learning recognise the connectedness of mind, body and spirit. While educators may plan or assess with a focus on a particular outcome or component of learning, they see children’s learning as integrated and interconnected.

An integrated approach

An integrated, holistic approach to teaching and learning also focuses on connections to the natural world. These approaches are essential in promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in children.

When early childhood professionals take a holistic approach to children’s learning and development they also promote their positive mental health and wellbeing. They do this when they:

  • pay attention to children’s physical, personal, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing as well as cognitive aspects of learning
  • recognise the connections between children, families and communities and the importance of reciprocal relationships and partnerships for learning
  • see learning as a social activity and value collaborative learning and community participation
  • foster children’s capacity to understand and respect the natural environment and the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land.

Building capacity

Early childhood and school staff already have a range of generalised skills and practices, such as listening and relationship skills, that that can be used and built upon to help staff understand their role in mental health promotion.

Early childhood and school staff can promote positive mental health by:

  • practicing listening skills with children and young people, such as through allowing child-led discussions and providing an overall summary of the discussion
  • assigning the role of establishing and maintaining referral pathways to a staff member or team so there are processes for referral in cases where a child or young person requires additional support. The staff member, or team, who has this responsibility will also be responsible for clearly documenting and communicating this process to staff in the early childhood setting or school
  • exploring relationships with local mental health community organisations and services and how the early childhood setting or school can tap into this knowledge
  • establishing a community of knowledge around mental health promotion. This may include establishing a small library about mental health promotion in the staff room
  • appointing a mental health promotion champion who is able to provide support to other staff on how to integrate mental health promotion into wider health promotion and wellbeing activities
  • having a paediatrician or mental health practitioner come to the early childhood setting or school and discuss the importance of positive mental health and its impacts on teaching and learning
  • understanding the backgrounds of the children, young people and their families that attend the early childhood setting or school and how this may impact on their relationships and interactions
  • understanding how the development of children and young people affects interactions with peers and adults.

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Related information

Learning frameworks birth to eight years