Child mental health is a growing concern for parents and educators in Ireland. Research shows increasing numbers of our children are experiencing mental health challenges, by the age of thirteen, 1 in 3 are experiencing some form of difficulty (Kelleher et al, 2012). To put this in perspective, for any family with 3 children it is likely that one will present with mental health issues before they are a teenager, with anxiety being one of the most prevalent issues reported (Cannon et al, 2013).
Practices at ECCE level have the potential to both support children in difficulty and prevent difficulties from developing as early as possible in children’s lives. We know that we develop our emotional capabilities throughout childhood, so let’s look at one research informed way preschool practitioners can support children to cope when they are feeling stressed, worried, or anxious.
Firstly, it is important that educators understand what is happening inside a child’s body when they experience anxiety. Anxiety is our internal alarm system and is designed to help us survive danger. The amygdala is the area of the brain linked to fear responses and responsible for detecting danger. It receives information from our senses and prepares us to fight or flight, causing the body to respond to any perceived threat. When this happens, we experience a series of hormonal changes and physiological responses which cause breathing to become shallow, the heart rate to increase, and the digestive system to shut down, as the body gets ready to respond to threat. However, the amygdala is also like a smoke alarm and cannot tell the difference between burnt toast and the house burning down (Young, 2017). Which means that for some children these responses become overactive, and they can spend a lot of time trapped in this fight or flight state.
As educators we are aware that the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain, is needed for higher level thinking. It is responsible for self-regulation, it helps us to work things out, bringing control and order. When we are stressed or anxious, the amygdala stops information getting to the prefrontal cortex. So, when children are stressed or anxious they shift from social or learning brain to survival brain, which makes it harder for them to think clearly, respond calmly, and communicate (Shanker, 2016).
However, we can support our children by teaching them techniques to counter this stress response. The 90 Second Rule is a term coined by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor in her book ‘My Stroke of Insight’ (Bolte Taylor, 2006) to explain the lifespan of negative emotions. She advises that when we react to something in our environment, this sets off a 90 second chemical process during which we cannot control these reactions. However, following this 90 second period these chemicals are flushed out of our bodies. This is very important when we consider the role of the amygdala and our children’s anxiety, as after that 90 second delay, we are in a position to influence how we respond to the fight or flight instinct. If our children practice controlled breathing, these deep, controlled breaths slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and calm the fight or flight response set off by the amygdala.
‘Breathing Buddies’ are a very effective way for young children to practice controlled breathing. Children lie comfortably and place their breathing buddy (a little stuffed toy) on their stomach, they then focus on the breathing buddy moving up and down as they slowly inhale and exhale. This type of ‘belly breathing’ helps to calm the fight, flight, or freeze response set off by the amygdala. Inhale for a count of three, hold for a count of three, exhale for a count of three, wait for a count of three, and repeat the process. This is a very effective technique that ECCE practitioners can use to help children send messages back to the amygdala that all is well. Although there is no magic wand to wave away our children’s anxiety, awareness of the 90 Second Rule and controlled breathing is very important in terms of our ability to respond to stress. The provision of simple interventions such as controlled breathing exercises have the capacity to shape the emotional wellbeing of our children, helping them to deal with emotional struggles, and in doing so, will also improve their educational chances.
- Bolte Taylor J (2006) My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York: Penguin Press.
- Cannon M, Coughlan H, Clarke M, Harley M & Kelleher I (2013) The Mental Health of Young People in Ireland: a report of the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research across the Lifespan (PERL) Group Dublin: Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
- Kelleher I, Connor D, Clarke M, Devlin, N, Harley M & Cannon M. (2012). Prevalence of psychotic symptoms in childhood and adolescence: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population-based studies. Psychological Medicine, 9, 1-7.
- Shanker, S (2016). Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. Canada: Viking.
- Young K (2017) Hey Warrior, A Book for Kids About Anxiety, Brisbane: Little Steps Publishing.