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This Mental Health Awareness Month, Let’s Focus on Connection

May 16, 2024

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a month where we raise awareness about the importance of mental health and ways to support mental well-being. At Housman Institute, emotional well-being and mental health are central to all of our efforts.

In my last blog post, we took a look at a New York Times article that explored chronic absenteeism and mental health issues in K–12 schools, focusing on the effects on children.

Equally important — and something that must come first, front, and center — is the mental health and emotional well-being of the significant adults in children’s lives, the caregivers, and educators.

The Importance of Adults' Well-Being

Why is this important for the adults, when it’s the children who are needing to develop these emotional, cognitive, and social competencies for success in learning and in life? Because children’s development happens within the context of relationships, and optimal growth and development happens within the context of nurturing, supportive, and empathic relationships. And children learn through imitation, observation, and how we model, guide, and respond to them.

For children to acquire the skills and learn to become competent in dealing with and managing their own emotions and understanding those of others, to become empathic in their relating and relationships, to regulate their big emotions so they can think, reason, learn, and solve problems and resolve conflicts, they need the adults to teach them. How best to accomplish this is through how the educators model, guide, and empathically support their students' emotions, behavior, and thinking.

For the educator to become proficient in teaching these critical skills to the students, they need to first develop their own emotionality — to enhance their own emotional intelligence so they can be successful in modeling and teaching these skills. Emotional intelligence within schools is at the heart of interconnectedness between the heart and the mind and foundational for personal, social, and academic success. Relationships, connection, engagement, interactions, and interrelatedness is key.

Adults and Children Manifest Emotions Differently

Children and adults manifest emotions, such as depression, differently. Typically, children externalize their emotions, often expressing emotions in action. Depression can be expressed in angry outbursts, irritability, physical complaints, changes in eating or sleeping, or through more aggressive behaviors such as hitting or throwing things that many consider “acting out.”

Adults typically express emotions, such as depression, by internalizing them. They often become withdrawn, isolated, and anxious. The New York Times article highlights one mother who was struggling with depression after losing her sister to COVID-19 and needing to send her 6- and 12-year-old sons to school, yet she was finding it difficult to get out of bed. The mother needed support, including home visits and therapy, to alter her routine to meet her own and her children’s needs.

This is a perfect example of how first the adult caregiver’s emotionality must be addressed before that adult can adequately guide children through their own. There are tools adults can use that are accessible to all — they can find ways to calm down through journaling, walking in nature, music, engaging in mindfulness, and more. Once calm, they are more available to focus and attend to the issues at hand. For more complex situations, professionals can support adults on their journeys to emotional regulation so they can serve as the best guides possible for the children in their lives.

Relationships are Key to Mental Health

Relationships are Key to Mental Health

In the same New York Times article I referenced in my last blog, Dr. Shepherd, a superintendent in Texas said, “If kids are not here, they are not forming relationships. If they are not forming relationships, we should expect there will be behavior and discipline issues. If they are not here, they will not be academically learning and they will struggle. If they struggle with their coursework, you can expect violent behaviors.”

There is nothing more important to mental health — for both children and adults — than connection. Connecting with peers is also an important way to develop emotional competence. Children, without even consciously thinking of it, are observing their peers and providing feedback by setting boundaries, acknowledging feelings, addressing heightened emotions, and more. That’s why play is so important to children's emotional development. The dynamic of play and what children learn by playing with their peers is unmatched and cannot be taught in any other context.

Tips for Building Emotional Competence

Some helpful tips and pointers to be mindful of in building emotional competence is when caregivers and educators can scaffold the four quadrants of emotional intelligence into their daily lives to both enhance their own emotional well-being and promote emotional competence with the children in their lives — by becoming aware of and understanding of one’s own emotions and those of others, being able to manage and regulate emotions through constructive emotional expression, and regulating heightened emotions, both positive and negative. When children are experiencing heightened emotions, we can talk them through this process to help calm them down so they can better manage and regulate their feelings, behavior, and thinking so they can become more available for learning.

When educators and caregivers are supported to enhance their own emotionality first, they are better able to develop meaningful connections between themselves and their students. This relational interactive model results in heightened connections between the teacher and student, enhancing children’s ability to stop and think before acting when upset — reducing aggressive and violent behaviors while increasing emotional understanding and regulation, self-control, social problem solving, and fostering healthy peer relationships and self-esteem. It also provides the adult with the skills to improve their own relating and relationships — a win win for all.

So this Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s commit to assessing our own emotionality and mental health and finding ways to alter our routines for the better so we can show up as our best selves for the children in our lives.

 

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