Building social and emotional competence

Over the last decade or so, the early childhood field has increased its interest in young children’s mental health.

Mental health is about how we think, feel and act. We all feel and behave in unique ways depending on our circumstance or context, but when behaviours are damaging or troubling or have the potential to be, they become detrimental to our day-to-day functioning and ways of interacting with our world.

The relationship between mental health and overall development is now well recognised. Early brain development research has cemented our knowledge of the importance of the early years in laying the foundations for social, emotional and cognitive health and shaping behaviours.

So, good mental health in the early childhood years refers to children’s healthy emotional development and social competence. It includes ways children interact with others, their self-confidence and feelings about themselves, and their ways of managing emotions and impulses. Sometimes, children from stressful, fragile chaotic or unpredictable family situations exhibit aggressive behaviours, inability to concentrate, persistent and intense anxiety, poor coping skills and/or problems with reacting appropriately to peers and others. Others might be withdrawn, sad, or unable to interact and play with peers. Each needs help and support.

Children who have challenging family backgrounds, characterised perhaps by parents’ mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, or family violence are at heightened risk of social and emotional problems. Pronounced coping and social difficulties mean that children struggle when they move from preschool or child care to school. Immature social skills tend to be linked to poor learning outcomes and children who lack age-appropriate skills often struggle academically. They may also be at increased risk for significant social and emotional problems during their schooling.

Not surprisingly though, the signs of early mental health problems vary dramatically from child to child and context to context and can be difficult to detect, especially if children do not participate regularly in early childhood services.

This issue of Every Child highlights the concept of mental-health, the need to build early childhood programs that support social and emotional competence in partnership with families, the importance of strategies for addressing potential problems, and ways of knowing when and how to support children and when to seek additional professional help.

Our writers say, that in addition to everyday social and emotional support forchildren, we need to access specific community mental-health resources such as KidsMatter Early Childhood to help strengthen children’s emotional and social development.

Rita Johnston says younger children need secure relationships with their primary caregivers. Attachment theory offers early childhood practitioners and families a lot to think about in terms of creating safe, secure environments for children and helps us understand why some children are anxious and fearful.

Common events like family separation and divorce can also have negative impacts on children’s emotional security. Clinical Child and Family Psychologist Jennifer McIntosh highlights the need for supportive and responsive care giving and overall ’emotional scaffolding’ for the child in the midst of a family breakdown as this can play a vital role in buffering the impact of conflict.

Early childhood practitioners also need to support and look out for each other’s social and emotional wellbeing. In an article about depression and anxiety in the workplace the beyondblue team urges early childhood educators to be more aware of signs and symptoms of mental health problems in their colleagues, parents and themselves. Early intervention is the key to recovery.

Finally, we’d like you to consider the Queensland Commissioner for Children and Young People and Child Guardian’s Elizabeth Fraser’s article urging us all to demonstrate strong commitment to overall safety and wellbeing for children, and to invest in processes that will sustain that commitment now and in the future. Specifically, she asks us to think about the issue smacking and its effects on children. She indicates that the issue is not so much whether to smack or not, but how we as parents and community members should think about the best ways of teaching and assisting children to reach their full potential – socially, emotionally and cognitively.

Alison Elliott Editor



Building social and emotional competence by Alison Elliott was featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 2—Wellbeing.