Judy Kynaston, National Project Manager KidsMatter Early Childhood Australia

Recognising mental health difficulties and intervening early is important. It can help prevent problems from becoming worse, and improve mental health outcomes for children.


A mental health diagnosis can have advantages and disadvantages. One of the main reasons a diagnosis can be problematic, is that people may respond to the diagnosis rather than the child. Diagnoses also have their advantages, as it may lead to families and educators forming a common understanding of a child’s difficulties. It may also lead to early intervention and eligibility for support services.


Dr Nicole Milburn,

Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Consultant

Fundamentally a mental health diagnosis is a way for people to communicate a collection of difficulties and symptoms that a child has.  And so having a mental health diagnosis, let’s take depression for example, will help educators and families get together and understand that the child is feeling really flat, not motivated and sad a lot of the time.  We more often have a problem, we more often need to communicate about children who are having tantrums or externalising types of behaviour, oppositional behaviour.  If that child has a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, which is quite common with those sorts of behaviours, then educators and parents can then understand that a child will fall apart when they’re actually feeling really anxious and get really oppositional when they’re feeling really anxious.  So a shared understanding of what’s happening for the child comes from having a diagnosis.

Anne Stonehouse, Early Childhood Consultant

Mental health issues are quite likely to affect the child’s experience in the service, and they might manifest themselves in very different ways.  Some children, because of mental health problems or challenges or issues, become very withdrawn and very reluctant to participate.  And therefore, don’t benefit from the learning opportunities that are there.  I think other children fix on one particular type of experience and one particular part of the environment, and don’t venture any further than that.  Obviously some children with mental health issues are very disruptive, very active, very lively and energetic, disrupt other children’s play and sometimes lack social skills and obviously this interferes with them forming friendships and developing that sense of belonging and being part of the group. 

Janet Williams-Smith, Early Childhood Services Consultant

I think it’s quite important to be really clear that early year services are a component, there needs to be other things going on in that child’s world that are helping.  So this brings us in to the conversation around how early year services integrate with other services to provide a more joined up delivery for families that are really struggling.  So it’s really important for early years services to examine the interface they have with other services like adult mental health, family support, child protection.  Because that’s not their job.  Their job is education and care and protecting a space for children to flourish. 

Dr Nicole Milburn,

Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Consultant

A diagnosis of a mental health disorder relates to a certain bunch of presenting problems essentially.  And they’re part of the child, they’re not all of the child, the child will still have upsets and things that make them angry, things that make them sad just like any other child would.  And it is important that the child be seen as a little person who has a problem rather than a problem.

Dr Sophie Havinghurst, Clinical Child Psychologist

If you do happen to find yourself working with a child who has a mental health diagnosis, remember that your interactions with that child are still going to be just about how that child is and their relationship with you, and the way you communicate with the child will depend not on their mental health problem but just upon how you relate normally to that child.  Remember also that diagnoses often don’t persist over time, that different people have different relationships and bring out different qualities in a child.  And so it may be that the child’s mental health diagnosis has been outlined clearly before they started at the kindergarten or the childhood setting that you’re working, but remembering that if you just approach that child the same way you’d approach any other child, and you relate to them the same way you’d normally relate to a new child, that you’re going to form a relationship that’s going to be based upon the same qualities that you value in your work with the child, and that are likely to bring out the best in the child themselves. 


Catharine Hydon, Early Childhood Consultant

Educators who make a commitment to a holistic view of the child will source information about how children are experiencing the context of the early childhood setting with many people.  They will start to look at the children themselves through that observational process, but they’ll also talk to families and they’ll also talk to each other.  And they might even talk to other children.  “How do you think that child is participating and what can we do to help those children?”  So it becomes a much more of a community approach to the notion of wellbeing, the notion of mental health, and just a very one size approach.  It becomes something that we want to be able to open up for many conversations.