KidsMatter is a framework that supports schools and early childhood education and care services to promote positive mental health and wellbeing for all children and reduce the risks of mental health difficulties. The four components of KidsMatter support children in managing feelings of distress including encouraging healthy expression of strong emotions and assisting children to feel safe and connected to the education setting. KidsMatter also supports schools, early childhood education and care services and families to connect with health professionals across the KidsMatter framework when children show signs of mental health difficulties, and provides support across all aspects of the framework and its implementation.
Open communication within families and a sense of connection is vital in supporting children who may be at risk of mental health difficulties. Suicidal behaviour can be confronting for families and education staff, and practitioners can play a key role in supporting families and staff by managing dialogue around this behaviour. Open communication within the family unit and the education staff assists with diminishing feelings of stigma and shame and ensures appropriate support structures are implemented. Practitioners can also assist with risk assessments, developing targeted intervention plans and referral pathways to professional support where needed.
Although suicide in children is rare, research shows that children can and do present with suicidal behaviour, thus highlighting the need for early intervention including identification of risk factors and promotion of protective factors, including adaptive coping skills.
There are links and similarities between self-harming behaviours and suicide, and both can be associated with feeling overwhelmed and distressed, however the key difference is that those who self-harm do not necessarily do so with the intent to end their lives.
A child’s sense of belonging is a key foundation stone
A prevention model to suicide requires a holistic approach involving students, education staff, parents, family, community and mental health professionals. Building strong connections to early childhood education and care services, schools, families and community serve as a protective factor for children and assists in developing a strong sense of self and their resilience. KidsMatter’s Component One, Creating a Positive Community, supports children to gain a sense of belonging and connection and fosters the development of positive relationships. Children who feel safe and connected in early childhood education and care settings and schools are better equipped for responding to and managing life stressors.
Model and help children to practise coping skills
In relation to suicide prevention in children, coping skills are important as they provide children with an adaptive framework for responding to life’s inevitable challenges.
Coping skills are our thoughts and behaviours related to managing difficult situations. Children learn to use different coping skills from the time they are born. Coping skills are an important part of positive mental health development as they assist children in managing feelings of distress. When children have tools and skills for managing challenges they are more likely to engage in helpful problem solving strategies and engage help when needed. It is important to remember that stress and distress are a normal part of life for both children and adults, and normalising these feelings in children and providing them with support helps the development of resilience.
There are lots of ways to build a child’s coping skills during challenging or worrying situations. Health and community professionals can use the following in their individual work with children, as well as assisting early childhood education and care services and school staff and parents to support children. Some examples include:
- Listen and talk to children. Help them to identify their concerns or worries and acknowledge how they are feeling.
- Comfort. There may be times when a child does not want to talk and just having an adult present is helpful. Providing reassurance to children when they are feeling worried or unsure is also important.
- Demonstrate and model ways to cope with situations. Prepare children for changes. Talk positively with children about change and assist them to prepare.
- Encourage help-seeking by teaching children when to ask for help. Problem-solve the situation, by taking children through a step-by-step process.
- Encourage children by talking positively about their attempts to cope.
Build resilience through the development of social and emotional skills
Resilience in children comes from the development of social and emotional skills as well as support from others. Component Two of the KidsMatter framework supports all children with their social and emotional learning. Key to social and emotional learning is teaching children how to manage feelings, friendships and learn problem-solving skills. Social and emotional skills promote children’s ability to cope with challenges and help prevent mental health difficulties.
Early childhood education and care services, schools, families and community agencies play a key role in supporting children to develop resilience. Through modelling of adaptive coping strategies, adults provide a platform for the development of a child’s resilience. In building this resilience it is important for adults to respond to stressors in a calm manner, utilising problem-solving skills and seeking support where appropriate. Children observe these behaviours and then internalise healthy problem-solving strategies, providing them with an internal framework for responding to stress
Collaborate with families, early education and care services and schools
Parents and carers are central to children’s good mental health. Early education and care services and schools promote the opportunity for parents to link with the education community and build strong connections with key figures in the child’s life. Health and community professionals can play an important role in working with families, early childhood education and care services, and schools to provide prevention and early intervention strategies to children who may be at-risk of mental health difficulties. KidsMatter Component Three, Working with Families, assists early childhood education and care services and schools in this work.
Component Four of KidsMatter assists early childhood education and care services and schools to recognise signs of mental health difficulties as soon as possible, and work with families to provide support. Health and community professionals can offer valuable support to families and education staff when there is concern about a child’s mental health by:
- providing psycho-education to family members and education about mental health difficulties in children including identification of early warning signs
- implementing support strategies to build on a child’s strengths and resilience through day-to-day interaction and planning
- supporting families and education staff to build their skills and confidence when responding to children they are concerned about
- assisting with referral pathways to appropriate professionals when signs of mental health difficulties are present
Building a strong support network around the child and family, including mental health practitioners, ensures best outcomes for a child’s mental health. Strategy-based interventions from health and community professionals, which can be applied at a group or individual level such as mindfulness, emotion regulation and stress management, support parents and schools to raise emotionally resilient children. The most effective efforts for suicide prevention involve a collaborative approach between families, schools and practitioners, and the KidsMatter framework provides the tools to ensure that this work is undertaken comprehensively.
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