mental health in early childhood education

Mental Health in Early Childhood: The Educator’s Guide

There has been a big push over the last several years to remove the stigma surrounding mental health. Mental health issues aren’t as obvious as physical ones and so they have been easy to ignore or misunderstand, but the research shows that mental health is something that affects us all. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, one in four people will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives.

The Importance of Mental Health in Early Childhood

From birth to age five, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in their lives. This means that whatever happens during this timeframe can have effects that will last a lifetime.

During the early years, special attention needs to be given toward mental health in order to ensure a child’s proper development. It is a caregiver’s responsibility to avoid incidents that will cause trauma, as well as identify when children are exhibiting behavior that may indicate that they are experiencing mental health issues.

What Mental Health Issues Can Young Children Have?

The same issues that affect adults can have their roots in early childhood. More common issues that can be observed in early years include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Phobias
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism
  • Eating disorders
  • Disruptive behavior (e.g. aggression)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

What Causes Mental Health Issues in Early Childhood?

The exact cause of a mental health issue can be difficult to trace, especially since we still don’t have a complete understanding of how the brain works. From what we do know, mental health issues are generally believed to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Genetic causes could be inherited traits that run in the family or a child’s particular brain chemistry. They can also be from neglect during their prenatal development, such as smoking or alcohol exposure.

A child’s environment can also lead to mental health issues, such as a traumatic event like abuse, neglect or the loss of a parent. When an early childhood educator suspects that one of these factors may be at play, they should pay extra attention for signs of mental health issues since the child is more likely to be susceptible.

Early Indicators of Mental Health Issues

Signs of mental health issues can be difficult to spot, and this is especially true for children. In addition to the normal varied behavior they exhibit, signs of the same mental health issue can look different in children than in adults. For example, an adult with depression may experience sadness as a symptom, whereas depression can cause children to show irritability.

When looking for signs, keep in mind that they are not necessarily indicative of a mental health issue. Many indicators can be very typical for a child this age. Rather than drawing conclusions after one or two instances of potential indicators, document these and over time see if this behavior is consistent to the point of being a concern.

Related Post: How to Identify Stress in a Child

Here are some of the more common indicators to look for:

  • Behavior problems
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Big and sustained mood changes (e.g. sadness that lasts two weeks)
  • Intense feelings (e.g. feeling fear to a point that makes it difficult to resume with normal activities)
  • Sudden behavior or personality changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Head or stomach aches
  • Self-harm
  • Aggressiveness
  • Inconsolable when fussy, irritable or upset
  • Easily startled by regular things
  • Unable to establish relationships with others
  • Flat affect (e.g. lack of reactions, monotone voice, etc.)
  • Uninterested in socializing with others
  • Little to no communication (when at an age where this is expected)
  • Regresses from previous developmental achievements

The Role of Early Childhood Educators in Mental Health

Know Your Limitations

As much as you may want to help, a child with special needs often requires the assessment and support of multiple professionals. Involving a trained physician, therapist, social worker to develop individualized education program (IEP) with the child’s family is a good way to proceed, instead of trying to support the child alone.

That being said, there are activities you can run in your classroom that are known to help promote healthy cognitive development, such as mindfulness activities. These are perfectly fine to do, just as long as you are not approaching these as a cure for more serious problems.


Early childhood educators spend a significant amount of time with children — in many cases, they are with a child for more of their waking hours throughout the week than their parents. This means that educators have the best opportunity to observe a child’s daily behavior and identify when they may be exhibiting signs of mental health issues. Educators are also experts in working with children and can more easily recognize signs or developmental delays or mental health issues than a young parent raising their first-born. It is also important for educators and parents to work together to note certain behavior that happens at home but not at school and vice versa.


The best thing for an early childhood educator to do when they notice something that may be a sign of a mental health issue is to document it. Whether it’s an obvious symptom or something minor that may or may not actually be an issue, you can’t go wrong by making a note. This will also help educators work together as a team, where notes coming from multiple educators will together paint a better picture of the child’s overall development Over time, these observations will work together to provide evidence when a mental health issue might be present. These observations will also serve as important information for the families and specialists that might get involved in supporting the child.


When you have a strong suspicion that a child may have a mental health problem, inform those who will be able to help. Your center may have its own policy for how to handle such issues, but generally, you will discuss it with your director to inform the parents or with the parents directly. From here, this should be brought to a child’s doctor, who is truly the most qualified person to understand what will be in the child’s best interest to do next.

No parent wants to be told that their child may have a mental health issue, and so this is a very sensitive topic that requires a thoughtful communication approach. This is why it is so important to have detailed documentation supporting your claims. You may see what to you are clear signs every day, but without documentation, it is much harder to get your point across. By having detailed records of what you are basing your decision on, there will be more information for a child’s parents and doctor to work with and take this issue seriously.

What has your experience been with challenging behavior in the classroom? Do you have tips that we didn’t share? Let us know in the comments!

This article has been reviewed and approved by HiMama’s resident Registered Early Childhood Educator, Kiah Price. Kiah has been an early educator since 2010 and has worked mostly in the preschool room. She also has experience with infants, toddlers and children with special needs. She loves coming up with activities that are both fun and educational!

Michael Keshen

Michael writes for HiMama's early childhood education blog and ECE Weekly newsletter. When not developing content for early childhood professionals, he can usually be found out and about with his wife and daughter exploring all that Toronto has to offer, or playing music with his karaoke band.


  • Alexander says:

    I fully agree with the conclusions stated in the article that the majority of mental problems originate from childhood. Such understanding came to me after watching the film in which the international group of psychologists has been disassembled on components of consciousness of the person and designated cause-and-effect relations forming us as the person. But the most interesting thing is where the thoughts come from!

  • mama bear says:

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  • Jasmine says:

    I like how you brought the attention of not only what causes mental health issues in children but also how to address it. Not many people know the signs of what to look for when it comes to mental health issues and some people don’t want to believe that their child is suffering so they ignore those signs and just look at their child as still being normal. As a future educator, this blog will definitely help me in the near future so that I can pay close attention if I have a gut feeling about a child that I believe is suffering mentally, and I will know how to not only document it but cautiously address the issue as well.