In Australia, 1 in 5 children have at least one parent living with a mental illness. For young children this makes them more vulnerable to develop their own mental health problems, or to experience behavioural issues.
Monash education and developmental psychologist Stella Laletas looks at the best ways early childhood educators can support children and their families.
Research shows that children with a parent affected by mental illness are developmentally vulnerable and require additional support and interventions from early childhood educators.
A collaborative and non-judgemental partnership with families should be at the heart of this approach – supporting the social, emotional and cognitive needs of vulnerable children.
Work in partnership with families and other professionals
A family-centred model of practice is a common way early childhood settings support children with physical and developmental disabilities. It can be equally applied to fostering positive outcomes for children who have a parent with a mental illness.
The knowledge and expertise of early childhood educators and caregivers promotes protective factors for children. For example, an early childhood educator can identify a child who is affected by a diagnosed parental mental illness, and at risk of not meeting developmental milestones. An individual learning plan can then be developed and implemented in partnership with the family.
The national Early Years Learning Framework ‘Belonging, Becoming and Being’ also provides a solid foundation for working in partnership with families. This can range from providing information and programs to parents, reinforcing social skills and emotional self-regulation and providing strategies in positive behaviour management.
Working with families with mental illness can be complex
Accessing childcare, family day care or kindergarten is a routine part of a family’s life. This gives early childhood educators the opportunity to connect with families in a practical and meaningful way, and build trust.
However, unless there are issues of neglect or abuse, or a child has their own issues, the needs of children with a parent who is affected by a mental illness can be hidden. Opportunities for early intervention can be missed.
There are a number of behavioural indicators that educators can look out for:
- Withdrawn behaviours - such as shyness, rocking, staring, anxiety, school phobia, truancy and social isolation
- Disruptive behaviours - such as being out-of-seat, calling out in class, tantrums, swearing, screaming or refusing to follow instructions.
Impacts on you and your staff
It can be incredibly challenging to work in partnership with people who have a mental illness.
Even trained professionals who work with people with mental illness experience reduced personal accomplishment, absence of feelings of competence in their work because of job stress, emotional exhaustion, and feelings of being emotionally overextended.
Our research showed the experience of early childhood educators and managers working with parents with mental health problems could trigger their own emotional responses.
Early childhood services and managers need to recognise this and provide specialised professional development that builds the capacity for early childhood educators to respond to and support vulnerable children and families.
Provide support as part of a team
Centre leaders should provide time, information and training for staff to build collaborative and supportive networks of support.
The EYLF framework emphasises the importance of inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary collaborative practice as a way of supporting the development needs of vulnerable children. Build skills and processes that foster and value collaboration and partnerships with specialist professions such as speech and occupational therapists, developmental and educational psychologists and mental health professionals.
Provide resources on mental health issues, referral procedures for families, and support for staff. This includes support programs (such as parenting programs), community-based support agencies, local mental health services, and the referral options available for families.
This is a form of mental processing applied to complex and challenging issues for which there is no obvious solution. It takes time and space to discuss, think and share learning and teaching strategies. These reflective practices should emphasise parent engagement strategies and ways to build reciprocal and trusting relationships.
Exposure to highly complex family dynamics on a day-to-day basis can make staff susceptible to experiencing burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. Educating staff about self-care can reduce this. Cognitive-behavioural coping skills and mindfulness strategies have been identified as helpful for those working with vulnerable at-risk children and families.
Promote mental health awareness
The topic of parental mental illness can be rendered off-limits out of fear of negative judgement. Preschool is a crucial development stage for children, and social stigma can impact the services and supports for them and their family.
Create a supportive environment and strengthen partnerships to effectively promote mental health.
- Provide information in newsletter articles about mental health issues resourced from government-funded initiatives such as Emerging Minds Resources.
- Display posters that foster mental health literacy and promote understanding of mental health issues.
- Provide information about community-based support services such as parenting programs, peer support groups, respite, and in-home support
- Be responsive to individual needs of children. Develop and implement action plans to provide different levels of response tailored to the individual needs of the family.
Resources for early childhood educators
Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) national initiative
Advice for early childhood education and care staff.
Emerging Minds website
Emerging Minds (previously the Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association – AICAFMHA) has been dedicated to advancing the mental health and emotional wellbeing of Australian infants, children, adolescents and their families. Online resources are available for educators and families.
Baker-Henningham, H. (2014). The role of early childhood education programmes in the promotion of child and adolescent mental health in low-and middle-income countries. International Journal of Epidemiology, 43, 407-433.
Biebel, K., Nicholson, J., & Woolsey, K. (2014). Implementing an intervention for parents with mental illness: Building workforce capacity. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 37(3), 209.
Laletas, S., Goodyear, M., & Reupert, A. (2018). Parental mental illness: cross-sectional analysis of family focused practice within the early childhood sector. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(5), 1650-1660.
Laletas, S., Reupert, A., & Goodyear, M. (2017). “What do we do? This is not our area”. Child care providers' experiences when working with families and preschool children living with parental mental illness. Children and Youth Services Review, 74, 71-79.
Maybery, D., Reupert, A., Patrick, K., Goodyear, M., & Crase, L. (2009). Prevalence of children whose parents have a mental illness. Psychiatric Bulletin, 33(1), 22-26.
Papadopoulou, K., Tsermidou, L., Dimitrakaki, C., Agapidaki, E., Oikonomidou, D., Petanidou, D., ... Giannakopoulos, G. (2014). A qualitative study of early childhood educators' beliefs and practices regarding children's socioemotional development. Early Child Development and Care, 184(12), 1843-1860.
Rishel, C. W. (2012). Pathways to prevention for children of depressed mothers: A review of the literature and recommendations for practice. Depression Research and Treatment. doi:10.1155/2012/313689
Scott, D. (2005). Inter‐organisational collaboration in family‐centred practice: A framework for analysis and action. Australian Social Work, 58(2), 132-141.