Infant Mental Health 101

At the end of September 2017, I attended a seminar on infant mental health delivered by the Infant Mental Health Promotion at SickKids Hospital. The lessons I learned confirmed those I have learned in school as well as my own personal values when it comes to children’s emotional development.

To begin with, infant mental health is defined as “the developing capacity of the child from birth to five years of age to (1) form close and secure adult and peer relationships; (2) experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and (3) explore the environment and learn in context of family, community, and culture” (Dr. Chaya Kulkarni, 2017). Positive early mental health supports the capacity for self-regulation, leading to resilience, and promoting optimal brain development. Secure attachment is essential in the child’s developing self-regulation skills and in the likelihood of positive physical and mental health outcomes across the lifespan. Aside from primary caregivers, practitioners in the field of infant mental health come from diverse educational backgrounds such as medicine, nursing, social work, early childhood education, occupational therapy, etc.

It is important to remember that early experiences–from preconception to pregnancy to the early years of life–influence children’s brain development greatly. Moreover, children’s growth is dependent on the relationships they have in their daily life. The absence of relationships in a child’s life is as detrimental as not feeding the child. This makes attachment a huge influencer in infant mental health.

Note, however, that attachment is not necessarily related to good or bad parenting. It is simply the earliest relationship between an infant and his/her caregiver. It is initiated by the child, which cues the caregiver to respond to his/her needs. (On the contrary, bonding is initiated by the caregiver to show affection, to play with him/her, or to meet his/her basic needs.) A secure attachment is formed when the caregiver responds consistently and appropriately to the child’s distress.

In fostering a secure attachment, the primary caregiver also acts as an external regulation system. This helps the child develop his/her own regulation skills as his/her caregiver responds to his/her cues to calm or energize him/her. In the absence of this external regulation during the early years, the child learns to act in certain ways, being mislabeled with having behaviour problems rather than mental health problems caused by neglect and an insecure attachment.

The good news is that we can recognize the risk factors and poor mental health during infancy. Unfortunately, services vary tremendously within provinces and across Canada. For services that do exist, most communities experience significant waiting lists. There is no formal system for recognizing when development is derailed, making it a challenge to help these children cope and recover.

Furthermore, there is the challenge of recognizing when behaviour is typical or when it is something else. Difficult behaviours such as aggression, whining, and tantrums may be examples of strategies that the child uses to help regulate him/herself. We often focus on the behaviour, trying different strategies to “correct” it. Often, this does not solve the problem. So instead, we should ask “why this behaviour” and “why now”. In answering these questions, we delve deeper into the root cause and look more closely at the child’s attachment relationships. Understanding this will help us help the child approach things differently and re-wire his/her brain with a more positive mental health outcome.

Responding early to signs of neglect, toxic stress, and other forms of trauma is essential in developing positive mental health. We need to be proactive and monitor children’s development. We need to work with families and support them in building secure attachments with their children. And we need to continue to build on our knowledge and understanding of infant mental health so that we may support it better.

“It is through others that we develop into ourselves.” ~Lev Vygotsky

Reflective Essay

I had three choices of what I wanted to be when I grew up: a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher. As an idealist who lived in a developing country, I was heartbroken to see doctors turn down ailing patients, lawyers refusing to defend the innocent, and teachers managing classes of 60+ children on their own while also selling various goods to them for extra income. All of these happened (still happen) because of socio-economic statuses that restrict quality services. I vowed to be different; I was determined to serve, not for money, but for the good of those I will be serving.

A couple of years into secondary school, I decided against being a lawyer because I knew I am not good with confrontations. I also changed my mind about wanting to be a doctor when I lost interest in studying higher level biology. Then I realized that becoming a teacher is the best way for me to make a change: I could empower children to take up a career that they are passionate about so that they could be happy no matter how much they may get paid. I thought that in taking this path, I could create positive ripple effects for future doctors, lawyers, politicians, nurses, etc. without having to actually work in all those different career fields. I saw children as the future, the solution to current societal problems.

However, having the opportunity to actually work with a group of 5- and 6-year-old children after I graduated from secondary school changed my perspective. I learned to ground myself in the present and enjoy the moment. I developed trusting relationships with my students and grew fond of them. I began to see them as tiny humans who are unique, intelligent, and fun-loving. I discovered how capable, competent, and creative each of them is. I observed how quickly they learned when they had the opportunity to work with tangible materials. I also recognized that the children’s “learning and development happens within the context of relationships among [them], [their] families, [their] educators, and their environments” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 6); I saw children as agents of communication and change from the moment their learning and development happen.

Through these discoveries, my vision for working with children is now a reciprocal learning experience. My initial drive for becoming an educator is still one of the many reasons I aspire to work in the classroom, but I am now driven with passion for children’s well-being and development, and I look forward to discovering new things and ideas as I spend my days with them. Working with children is a challenge; it brings up a lot of questions for both educator and students. Yet, “it is in exploring our questions that learning happens” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 5). I imagine that open communication, respect, and trust of one another allow us to explore these questions and provide us with an opportunity to develop and grow together within the early learning environment.

In addition, I believe that an early learning environment that fosters a sense of belonging enhances the children’s experiences. I envision it to be a positive space where they explore, investigate, and experience various learning opportunities without restrictions. This is possible when children “[are] connected to others and [contribute] to their world” (Ministry of Educaiton, 2014, p. 24). Thus, the early learning environment is warm and welcoming to the children and their families—an extension of the children’s homes where they feel they belong, are loved, and are emotionally safe.

Thus, I believe it is important to remember that children’s families are valuable resources and partners in supporting children’s development. They are an important aspect of children’s lives and identities. They are equally, if not more, significant influences in “[children’s] developing . . . sense of self, health, and well-being” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 29). According to Ontario’s Ministry of Education (2014), “[creating] an environment that welcomes families into the space, inviting their perspectives and providing opportunities for families to participate in meaningful ways . . . on an ongoing basis, [further] supports [children’s] sense of belonging” (p. 18). Families are the experts on their children, but they are also learners whose participation and involvement in the child care centre’s activities benefit their children as they discover more about their little ones.

Another learning partner in the child care centre are my colleagues: co-educators who are passionate about what they do, but are critical thinkers and critical partners with whom I grow as we learn different approaches and strategies in working with children and their families. We work together in “creating contexts for learning through exploration, play, and inquiry” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 35) so that the children in our care are engaged in their activities. My colleagues and I also communicate with each other openly as we “foster communication and expression” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 41) in children, which are a foundation for their learning.

In collaboration with families and colleagues, and with the children as focus, I suspect that cultural diversity will open up more opportunities for everyone to be more accepting of others. It will lead to new avenues of learning as we all discover and understand different cultures through “intentional, planned program[s] [that support] learning” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 10) and “respect for diversity, equity, and inclusion” (Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 10).

References

Ministry of Education. (2014). How does learning happen?: Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years. Ontario: Queen’s Printer.

Reflective Task 2: Learning Styles

Identify your top Learning Style(s) and some characteristics of the style.

Reflector

I like to take some time to observe, collect information, and reflect on this information before acting upon it. I prefer to do a thorough job rather than rushing through an activity for the sake of expediency.

Theorist

I like having the time to explore and probe through ideas and concepts to fully understand them. I prefer a systematic way of approaching situations by analysing it from different points of view.

Using the handouts provided as a guide, reflect on whether you agree with the assessment. Any new learning or insights? Surprises?

I agree with the assessment and see how I am equally a reflector and a theorist. In particular, the results explain why I take time to create activity plans for my field placement. Considering that I visit my kindergarten class only twice a week, I needed several weeks of observation and experience with the children before understanding what types of activity may or may not interest them. Additionally, I needed to thoroughly understand the Full-Day Kindergarten Curriculum, from which I base the activity’s anticipated learning, before completing my planning forms.

Although most of the characteristics of a reflector and a theorist apply to my learning style, I am surprised to see that my tendency to lead discussions and group assignments lies within an activist’s learning style (my lowest preference). At the same time, it is interesting to note that amidst leading the group, I take a step back and allow each member to put their ideas forth before sharing mine or before coming to a conclusion about the subject at hand.

Knowing your preferences is a first step to becoming an ‘all-around learner’. Identify which styles you are under-utilising and what you may do to strengthen them.

My preference to the pragmatist learning style (14 points) comes to a close second with the reflector and theorist styles (15 points). However, my preference for the activist learning style falls way behind the three with eight points. This makes sense in that the activist learning style seems to be a direct opposite of the reflector and theorist styles. For that reason, I believe that I need to be more spontaneous and open to new experiences. Moreover, acting on instinct once in a while may help me strengthen my activist learning style as I become skilled at thinking on my feet.

Joining the Girl Guides of Canada as a Unit Leader supports this practice. As a new Guider, I am thrust into unfamiliar situations that I have no background in. Thus, to practice learning as an activist, I need to speak up more in the meetings and take on the role I signed up for—a leader who generates ideas on the spot most of the time.