Action Alliance for Children is no longer creating new content for Children's Advocate and Defensor de los Niños.
We encourage the continued use and distribution of the magazine and online articles archive.
Permissions guidelines: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

Tips on How Child Care Providers Can Foster Mental Health

February 6, 2013


It's not about teaching children, but valuing relationships that develop between provider and child.

Kadija Johnston

Program Coordinator

UCSF Infant-Parent Program

Social and emotional development is “fundamental” to children’s mental health, says Kadija Johnston, program coordinator of the UCSF Infant-Parent Program.

That’s why child care providers play such a key role in the prevention of mental health problems by promoting positive development.

“[We need to] acknowledge that mental health needs are a basic part of child development,” says Jackie Kimbrough, director of the Children’s Collective in Los Angeles.

Experts share tips on how child care providers can nurture social and emotional growth — and find help when they need it.

Be “child focused”

At Children’s Collective, the children have activities to build their sense of self-worth, including making life-size paper dolls and talking to the class about themselves, Kimbrough says.

When children are playing ball, child care providers should be in there developing their social skills, and helping them learn how to be in relationships, according to Kimbrough.

“How you interact with a child makes the difference, being ‘child focused’ not ‘task focused,’” says Janice Perry, mental health manager for Berkeley Head Start.

Help build friendships

Child care consultant Jean Monroe advises to help children learn how to make friends.

Monroe says to have children work in partners, form groups around a project or have two children set the table or take out materials. In addition, children can pair off and talk with each other — telling each other stories, and talking about feelings or how you help a friend who is sad.

“Use [sharing time] to begin to teach the art of dialogue,” Monroe says.

Kimbrough adds that children can do activities, such as making ice cream, where each child has to contribute something to the task and all kids get something good at the end.

Value relationships

“It’s not about teaching children, but valuing relationships that develop between provider and child,” Johnston says.

For example, if infants shake a rattle, they feel excited because not only did they make something happen, but also an adult beams at them.

In addition, if the infant feels charming and wonderful, they walk into school later feeling capable and confident.

Respect culture

“Hire staff that represents the populations you serve,” says Tressa Tucker, family and child program coordinator at the Children’s Collective.

Tucker says if that’s not possible, do research, train staff or bring in consultants. For example, the Children’s Collective had a growing East African population, but no staff from East Africa. Tucker asked some of the parents to help them communicate with families and share about their culture.

Monroe says to spend time talking with parents, observing how parents and children touch. For example, she says when hugging a child, ask first. Or find someone you trust from the same culture, and ask them: “I’m a hugger, is that inappropriate?”

Involve parents

Every parent/teacher conference should report to parents on how a child is taking responsibility, standing up for his or her rights, according to Monroe.

Monroe suggests, for example, to make your class’ goal for the month on “how to make friends” and talk to parents, asking “Can you follow up at home? Help plan activities?”

Watch for mental health issues

Providers should look at children’s emotional behavior, interaction with providers and their environment, and how well they meet developmental milestones.

“Children can show problems by being hypersensitive or closing down,” says Bill Carter, deputy director of the California Institute for Mental Health.

But don’t expect all children to be the same.

“Keep temperament in mind,” cautions Monroe. “Look at everything and look for patterns.”

Monroe says some children cannot sit in a circle, but look to see if the child will sing the songs. Also, watch a child’s play habits — do they dominate the play? Cry when they don’t get their way? Can they make friendships with other children? Are they self-starters? Or does the teacher have to initiate activities because they don’t know how to make choices?

Work with mental health professionals

When a provider is concerned or puzzled by a child’s behavior, they should consult a mental health person who understands child development and education, advises Monroe.

This person “comes in as someone who’s objective — they can give informed suggestions and come back to see if they’re working,” Monroe says. “They can work out alternatives with the input of parents and teachers.”

The mental health professional can also do an assessment to see if the child would benefit from a play group to build social skills, mental health treatment or a more thorough assessment.

Head Start guidelines mandate mental health screening for new children and require each Head Start site to have a mental health consultant, Perry says.

Some child care centers have mental health staff while others centers may have ongoing relationships with drop-in mental health consultants, or provide mental health training for staff.

“When I have the opportunity to be in the classroom more, I can make a tremendous difference,” Perry says. “[I'm] there as a different pair of eyes; I can model different ways of behaving.”

Originally written by Jessine Foss.