It can be difficult for families and care-givers to know when to seek help for mental health difficulties in infancy and early childhood. Children demonstrate a great variety of behaviours and strong emotions in the first few years of life, most of which are common and do not result in problems. Yet, it remains true that a person’s life-long wellbeing is much improved the earlier in life a mental health difficulty is identified.

“Mental health diagnoses in children are relatively easy to treat and take a relatively short amount of time compared to older children, adolescents and adults,” says Dr Nicole Milburn, Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Consultant.   

“And so it's really important that we get in quickly when a mental health problem arises, because it will probably resolve reasonably quickly rather than it becoming entrenched.”

KidsMatter supports early childhood educators to be aware of issues and know when to act. If behavioural and emotional difficulties persist, educators can begin by gathering some careful observations about the child.

Mental health difficulties in the young look quite different to those in older children, says Dr Sophie Havighurst, Clinical Child Psychologist.

“One of the first things is that kids are not really able to tell you if they’re having a hard time. They don’t communicate with words. Instead, they communicate with their behaviour,” she says.

“What we do when we’re observing a child who is having difficulties is we identify what’s happening in terms of how they’re managing their emotional and relational world. How are they managing separation from their care givers? What are we are seeing in terms of their social relationships? Are they confident with other kids or are they not?”

The BETLS tool is a simple and effective way for educators, families and even health professionals to gather and organise these cues, and is a good starting point for approaching a child’s family if there is a legitimate concern. It helps assess the pervasiveness, frequency, persistence and severity of problems in the following areas:

  • Behaviour – What are their internalising (eg nervousness, anxiousness, worry, sadness or withdrawal) and externalising (eg hyperactivity, aggression or problems paying attention) behaviours?

  • Emotions – How might they be feeling (eg difficulties with expression or calming down)?

  • Thoughts – How might they be thinking (eg negative thinking towards themselves or their environment)?

  • Learning – What is their ability to pay attention, remember information, complete tasks, communicate with others, and use physical skills?

  • Social relationships – What is their ability to form relationships, respond to social cues, and engage with others?

Part of our work at KidsMatter is to encourage health and community professionals to reach out to early childhood services (and primary schools) to equip them with knowledge and processes that can help promote great mental health in childhood. These connections facilitate the best referral processes available.

We have a suite of tools to help professionals partner up with early childhood services and primary schools, as well as a rated Programs Guide that takes the guess-work out of choosing social and emotional learning curricula.