Early childhood mental health: Raising happy and compassionate learners for success

Mental health is one of the most pervasive and crucial issues nowadays that can be both catholic and enigmatic. It is catholic because it is universal and covers people of all races, nationalities, creeds, social statuses, and professions. Inversely, it can also be considered enigmatic because many of us prefer to shroud mental health in secrecy, limiting it within the confines of our minds and our hearts. Though there are many resources and support groups that propagate mental health awareness, we are still left in the dark about what mental health really is and why it matters so much worldwide. Stigmata against mental health are still highly existent and almost irreparable, so they either make us reflect on how we must advocate it further or pierce our inner children to the core, especially if one has mental health challenges. The 21st century is supposed to be an era for spearheading and championing change in how mental health is perceived by the general public, but mass media and entertainment are particularly guilty of reinforcing stereotypes of people with mental health challenges (not issues, because the word tends to be strong and at times vituperative to many).

In the context of education, mental health is such a touchy matter because it greatly affects how learners are perceived and classified by medical professionals, guidance counselors, school policy makers, teachers, and even the Department of Education and the state. Undeniable is the fact that learners with mental health challenges are often relegated to the side or to the rear by both their peers and authority figures, which results in increased incidences of dropping out, behavioral problems, academic failure, and suicide and other examples of self-harm. In addition, these learners may also direct their pent-up, latent yet eruptive anger towards other people and then be unjustly crucified by policies and social dictates that curtail the freedom of children with mental health challenges to pursue education and to be heard and recognized. Problems in mental health know no bounds and can haunt anyone like a poltergeist at worst. In the Philippines, though mental health is being addressed and put into the spotlight, there are still instances of discrimination against learners who have mental health challenges

Early childhood mental health today

We educators have been knowledgeable of the influence of early childhood on one’s likelihood of success. Notwithstanding the pecuniary and material limitations of a majority of public (and sometimes, private) schools, there is much that we educators can do for mental health to be treated with compassion and understanding, not derision and denial. Given that today’s extremely competitive, instantaneous, and gadget-heavy world causes us to be worn out before our time, we educators are expected to fortify and pump up our ability to withstand stress. This is ideally expected in early childhood; nonetheless, child-rearing practices, environmental influences, and the esoteric world of genes and hormones all contribute to one’s chances of becoming either mentally strong or mentally collapsible. We all need to become adept and genuine in giving children a shot in the arm and empowering them to solve their problems. This does not mean, though, that they must not seek others’ help because helping others and seeking help are hallmarks of mental strength and transparent humanity.

It is undeniable that how we raise and school our children determine the persons that they can be in the future. If we show them love and affection with discipline, they grow up to become authoritative parents and well-loved and trusted members of society. On the other hand, if we hold them by the neck or let them loose, they would grow up to become either timid or brusque in the future. Not only do words influence our children’s mental health but also our attitudes, perceptions, and treatment towards them. Consciously or unconsciously, we feed our children either affirmative or destructive words; the tendency for us at times is that we project our frustrations, hurts, impatience, and even hatred towards them. What we fail to realize is that we create timorous or gruff humans who then experience a host of problems that would prove to be more difficult than untangling Rapunzel’s hair or preventing Absalom’s hair from getting caught in tree trunks.

As educators, we work together closely and cooperatively with our learners’ parents and with other professionals such as principals, guidance counsellors, and others. We cannot be solely responsible for forming our learners into proactive, productive, and perceptive citizens of our country because building confidence and tenacity among our learners is a multi-disciplinary and a team-based approach.

Strengthening the role of mental health in early childhood development

Discipline is one of the barometers that determine how well a child must be raised. Permissiveness or authoritarianism is not the order of the day in today’s parenting and teaching practices. However, this is easier said than done because we educators are saddled and baffled by the influx of children coming to our aid and who at times feel empty and insipid, the outcomes of incorrect parenting; another cause is trauma coupled with abuse. Furthermore, state and community expectations on how we should teach and manage our learners are like utility bills piling up and causing us to be overwhelmed.

Granted that mental health in early childhood is necessary yet highly overlooked, today is the time we educators actively pursue the path of leading our learners, especially those in early childhood, to stability and harmony. As teachers, we must exercise caution, discretion, and passion our duty to provide our learners with compassionate, reasonable, and loving discipline so that they would grow up to become loving, caring, and protective towards other people. In addition, we must also empower our learners’ parents to practice positive, collaborative, and empowering parenting so that our learners would not be at a loss as to how to cope with life’s adversities and maladies.

Learning the latest and the best practices in mental health awareness and education must start with us. The role of mental health in early childhood will never be gainsaid because young children’s minds are like clay waiting to be formed; once they go beyond five years old, it would be difficult to correct defects, especially irreparable ones.

The role of early childhood mental health in forming our learners

Nowadays, the Department of Education of the Philippines has stipulated that all students must begin their formal education by enrolling in Kindergarten 1. In the early childhood stage, children are being taught how to make and keep friends, take turns, share what they have, and apologize even for just slighting another child or other children, apart from the requisite, basic literacy and numeracy skills. It is imperative that mental health be prioritized and be given much attention at this point as to avoid future developmental problems that may eventually go haywire and be almost impossible to treat, just like finding a needle in a haystack.

In order that we and our dear readers be more aware and abreast of mental health among learners in early childhood, I am featuring Ms. Michelle Marie Manalastas-Malone, M.Ed, a Filipino-American early childhood educator who is the Program Coordinator of the Child Development Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Another feather on her cap is her being a professional development trainer at Air Child Care Training Solutions. Watch out for it in the second part of our early childhood mental health series!

I would like to greet the following people who have been my friends for so long, especially in the field of education: Ms. Gina Sy-Luna, Dr. Emmanuel Gonzales, Mr. Arth Pizzaro, Ms. Basil Estrope, Ms. Sybil Aseron (my cousin-in-law), Dr. Dennis Pulido, Dr. Rochelle Lucas, Dr. Voltaire Mistades, Dr. Jennifer de Ramos, Dr. Selwyn Cruz, Mr. Richard Floralde, Mr. Ariz Manguilin, Mr. Bert Gamiao, Dr. Mark Fernandez, Dr. Ariez Lorenzo, Mr. Ramsey Ferrer, Mr. Ferdinand Rellorosa, Ms. Daisy Almaden, Dr. Joahna Mante-Estacio, Dr. Sydney Gonzales-Villegas, Dr. Mildred Rojo-Laurilla, Dr. Dolores Taylan, Dr. Nonon Carandang, Ms. Grace Sarao, Mr. Rodney Alforte, Ms. Rosemarie Abellera, Mr. Auggene de Vega, Dr. Grace Tabernero, Dr. Elma Cordero, Mr. Michael Cleofe, Mr. Rosh Castro, Mr. Genesis David, Ms. Cris Cortes, Ms. Catherine Sanchez, Ms. Marilyn Formentiera, Ms. Afril Pascual-Teves, Mr. Angelo Gualberto, Mr. Ferdinand Francisco, Mr. Charles M. Valencia, Mr. Aiko Caguioa, Ms. Azucena Magana, Ms. Marinel Asia, Ms. Julie Anne Laroza, Ms. Marian Villanueva, Mr. Reymundo Ilmeng, Mr. Herbert Tagorda, and all others. Special greetings to Dr. Teresita de Mesa, Ms. Raquel Rayel, Ms. Ma. Victoria Oblena, Ms. Elizabeth Madrid-Lao, Ms. Belinda Palomo, Mr. Manuelito Esmane, Fr. Joselito Irlandes, Ms. Virginia Irlandes, and all other teachers of St. John Ma. Vianney School of Quezon City. I love you all!