Many children who have problematic, persistent behaviour and emotions don’t get the help they need in early childhood - even when support is available. Sometimes this can be because parents and carers have difficulties accessing community support (eg unsure of where to go, waiting lists, prohibitive costs), have a fear of stigma, or simply don’t realise there is a problem.
One way health and community professionals can facilitate this support is by developing partnerships with early childhood services. Professionals can promote effective 'help seeking', provide access to services and support, and even contribute to family information programs and the professional development of educators.
According to Dr Sarah Mares, Consultant Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, many families are reluctant to seek the help of professionals because they fear their child may be diagnosed with a mental health difficulty. One way to circumvent this fear is to offer treatment at the early childhood service.
“It generally works best for families if the intervention and help they get happens all in the one place, as they tend to no longer have the sense of trust and connection once they go outside,” she says.
“The more that you can actually do - in terms of getting a psychologist, an occupational therapist, or a speech and language therapist, for example, to come in and see a child or to talk to a family - the better. The idea of a one‑stop shop can break down the fear of help-seeking, because it actually is a safe place for the child and for the family.”
Dr Nick Kowalenko, Consultant Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, believes the experience of being in early childhood settings is very important to kids and is, therefore, a great source of opportunity for clinicians.
“It’s an avenue in which a lot of things might arise in terms of clinical consideration; things to do with relationships, emotions and behaviours. It’s an avenue where you can work closely with childhood educators and do quite a lot in partnership with parents,” he says.
“Sometimes, strengthening that partnership between the family and the early childhood setting can be done through a third party like a clinician. That’s the bit I like to do; it’s about strengthening the way they work together.”
The following KidsMatter resources can help health and community professionals work with early childhood services:
Connecting with families: Conversations that make a difference (an eLearning package for early childhood services, primary schools, and health and community professionals).
Directory for kids’ mental health and wellbeing (a listing of organisations that offer resources and services for families and health and community professionals).
Mental health information for families.