Knowledge

The Mental Health Algorithm

Before we talk about how to help children with their mental health it is important to remind ourselves of a safety instruction used on airplanes- put on your oxygen mask first before helping others.

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Why have I called it an algorithm? Because mental health needs the following –

  • Decomposition- breaking the task into smaller, manageable tasks. Breaking mental health into smaller, manageable things to do every day
  • Pattern recognition- finding a pattern in how children behave when confronted with certain situations or stress
  • Abstraction- teaching ourselves to focus on what matters and ignore the other things, so when children misbehave focus on the why and not the how, what, and other clutter.
  • Algorithmic thinking- creating a set of steps to follow to help children cope with their emotions, talk about mental health and be happy.

Can young children suffer from depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma? The answer is yes. But what does this look like? It can be any of these behaviors or a combination of them-

  1. Children start having tantrums and start misbehaving
  2. Become moody
  3. Become aggressive
  4. They start bedwetting, and nail-biting.
  5. They are unable to focus or remember new learning
  6. They start over or undereating.
  7. Suffer from lack of sleep and start dozing off during the day.

Parents and teachers should be worried if these last for more than two weeks consistently.

Dr. Maria Kovacs, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says that when young children are depressed “the primary mood is irritability not sadness- children come across as being very cranky. The best way for parents and teachers to recognize depression in young children is not so much by what a child says as by what the child does- or stops doing.”

Dr. Helen Egger until recently the chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health says, “ in a preschool-aged child depression may look like a behaviour problem but is really driven by what the child is feeling inside.”

But before we talk about how to help children with their mental health it is important to remind ourselves of a safety instruction used on airplanes- put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Adults who take care of children especially teachers must first take care of their mental health and give it importance because if they do not consider it an important aspect of holistic health then they will never be able to take care of the mental health of their students. Teachers go through a lot of stress, and anxiety which if bottled up for a long time can trigger serious mental health issues.

Causes of stress in teachers-

  1. Inability to handle workplace politics
  2. Struggling with issues at the home and family front
  3. The guilt of not being able to give their best to the special needs children in their class
  4. Inability to handle workload due to lack of time management, prioritization and other issues.
  5. Nervousness about handling upset parents.

So let’s code teacher’s mental health-

Taking care of your mental health should become a part of your daily routine, make time for it and prioritize it –

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  1. Set some time aside every day to unwind.
  2. Plan and prioritize – time management is an extremely important life skill, but is not taught to us in any course. Learn and imbibe it. Don’t use your brain to remember tasks, for that keep a diary or a reminder on your phone. Brains get stressed when we only use them to remember things, brains are for logic and thinking.
  3. Set boundaries- especially for your texts, messages and emails, and most importantly social media.
  4. Appreciate your skills and learn new ones- never stop learning, as they say still water stagnates.
  5. Move. Move. – don’t ignore physical exercise.
  6. Seek help. Seek support. Seek advice- don’t struggle alone with your personal or professional dilemmas, seek the right support.

Teaching Coping and resilience-

It is said that those who survived the pandemic without facing mental health issues are those who were resilient. What is resiliency? It means the ability to bounce back from difficult situations, it means the ability to feel the negative emotions, let them wash over you like a super wave but not allowing them to engulf or drown you, it means surviving with your emotional health intact.

To be resilient one has to learn coping skills, and these need to be taught to children from a young age. Children learn by imitation so they will learn how to cope with the adults in their environment, hence it is important that we display good coping skills.

Coping is nothing but the ability to ‘turn down’ your reaction to a situation, emotion, or stress.

Some coping skills to teach children are-

  1. Self-soothing- engage the body in a ritual of natural calming- deep breathing, counting to ten etc
  2. Distraction- redirecting your attention to something more interesting and positive- look outside the window, start dancing, clap your hands, etc
  3. Mindfulness- focussing on your feelings and what is happening to your body and how to calm down and reclaim your emotions. – deep breathing, labelling the emotion, knowing positive ways to react to that emotion instead of choosing negative ways.

Try these breathing games with children

Mindfulness is the key…

The ability to reflect upon what is happening, while it is happening is called Mindfulness.  Mindfulness helps children be aware of their emotions and feelings and they are then better able to control and voice out their emotions. It works for everyone, have you ever said something that you later regret? Well, it means you were not ‘mindful’ about your speech, you blurted out whatever you were thinking and feeling! You responded to a stimulus without pausing and ‘thinking’. Mindfulness is the pause that you take between a stimulus and a reaction. Teaching this to children will help them move from ‘I can’t, I don’t want.” to understanding ‘I can, Why I don’t want, what should I do.’

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Mindfulness is being aware or mindful of your body and its needs and condition and meditation is the ability to control your body to calm your thoughts. That is why meditation requires an upright-seated posture. Deep breathing exercises while sitting upright with the eyes closed, is a great combination of both mindfulness and meditation.

One of the simplest mindfulness activities is to get children to close their eyes and listen to their breathing. Ask questions like-

  • Can you hear your breathing?
  • How is it fast or slow?
  • Put your hand on your chest, can you feel your heartbeat?

Now make them do rigorous jumping and then stop and again ask them the same questions, and ask them what is the difference in their breathing and heartbeat now? Now make them sit down, close their eyes, and take deep breaths in and out – now how do they feel?

The above will help children feel their breath, and their heartbeat and understand how their breathing and heartbeat change when they do any physical activity, it also changes when they are upset or angry. Explain to them what to do when they experience these feelings…take a deep breath to calm down and think.

Emotional labelling –

Out-of-control emotions can make smart people stupid.- Daniel Goleman

In the early years, emotions and feelings are something that children are experiencing for the first time and it can lead to a lot of confusion if we always ask them to ‘behave’, ‘don’t cry’ etc. because then they throw tantrums and have meltdowns. But there is a way we can have a balance between ignoring a strong emotion and completely indulging in it, it is called ‘affect labelling’ or ‘emotion labelling’. By labelling something we are able to understand and acknowledge it and thus able to deal with it or quell it.

In any stressful situation, children experience a range of emotions and feelings of fear, boredom, irritability, sadness, etc. How we help them acknowledge those feelings or help them find acceptable ways of releasing them, will define their positive emotional development, which will also impact their social and cognitive development.

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How can early childhood educators and parents help enhance emotional development in the early years?
  1. Help children identify and label their feelings and thus enable them to deal with them appropriately. Use sentences like these to help them label emotions, “I see you are angry because you did not get the blue crayon…..”, or “I see you are sad that your friend did not sit next to you…..” and then extend the sentences to help enable them to cope with the emotions, “….but you can colour with the red one till the blue one is available.” Or “….but you can sit with Yash today and maybe share with him all the fun.”
  2. Stories and story characters can be used as an important tool to help kids cope with and understand emotions. Use appropriate stories and then use discussion starters like-
  • Talking and discussing the emotions shown by the story characters, both positive and negative.
  • Asking the children how they think a character felt at the end of a story or when something important happened in the story. E.g. “How do you think baby bear felt on seeing his chair broken?”
  • Asking the children what they would do to help the character in the story feel better. E.g. “If you were Goldilocks what would you do to make the baby bear feel better?”
  1. Accept emotional responses; learn to teach them to reject the emotional behaviour or to channel it. For example, if a child bites someone, the feeling is of anger or frustration. So teach the child to acknowledge the emotion by saying, “I know you are feeling angry or frustrated that you are unable to get a chance on the slide but you can talk to me about it but it is not acceptable to bite or hit someone.”

Use this new version of ‘Where is Thumbkin?’ to help children label emotions and understand safe and acceptable ways of showing emotion or dealing with it.

Let’s talk about mental health and arm the child with the ability to cope, and this comes from emotional intelligence,  so understand children’s emotional needs and give the support and care required to strengthen their emotional armour and mental health.

Happiness can always be found, even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” – Dumbledore.

About the author:

Dr. Swati Popat Vats is President, Early Childhood Association India, Association for Primary Education & Research, and Podar Education Network.

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