May is Mental Health Month and much attention is being put toward our country’s children who in any given year, says the CDC, show signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder at a rate of one in five.
Less clear is the incidence of mental health disorders in early childhood, when such problems often go undetected. Alarmingly, one study published by the NIH found that children as young as 1.5 years may suffer mental illness at the same rate as their older peers.
What is clear, as noted by a 2004 study by the National Scientific Council, is that the early years are foundational for children’s emotional, cognitive and social development. At this time, stable, responsive, nurturing relationships—including children’s relationships with parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, and peers—and rich learning experiences shape the architecture of the developing brain, supporting learning and behavior, as well as physical and mental health. Conversely at this time, a traumatic environment and repeated adverse experiences can create toxic stress, impairing children’s ability to learn and relate to others, negatively impacting their lifelong success and mental health.
So while the early years pose significant risks, they also provide significant opportunity. The American Institutes for Research notes studies by Shonkoff and Phillips and others that show that young children’s optimal development requires “safe and healthy environments, sensitive and responsive caregiving, opportunities to develop oral language and communication skills, support for social-emotional development (including self-regulation), cognitively enriching experiences, and positive and respectful guidance—both at home and in the community.”
The evidence-based begin to…ECSEL approach, practiced at Beginnings School and Child Development Center, embodies these very principles, helping children from birth develop the necessary emotional, cognitive and social early learning skills. Under the guidance of responsive, attuned and sensitive caregivers, children in our program have been shown to significantly improve in emotional competence, self-regulation, empathy and other competencies critical for learning, success, and mental health. While we have yet to conduct our alumni study, anecdotal evidence and extant research tells us that these benefits persist long into adulthood, reinforcing for us that the early years offer an unparalleled opportunity for all of us to promote our children’s mental health and success!