Infant mental health may be described as a continuum, ranging from social/emotional wellness—an ability to form satisfying relationships with others, to play, communicate, learn, and experience the full spectrum of human emotions—to the disorders of very early childhood. Infant mental health develops in the context of family, community, and cultural expectations for very young children.
School readiness refers to the skills and competencies of children who enter school; these typically include the five domains of development listed below (National Education Goals Project, 3):
- Health and physical development
- Social and emotional development
- Approaches to learning
- Language development and communication
- Cognition and general knowledge
As is clear above, school readiness requires more than literacy and numeracy skills in children; it requires social/emotional skills as well. A child with school-ready social/emotional development is one who tends to be confident, friendly, attentive, and able to develop relationships with peers and teachers, concentrate and persist with tasks, communicate his/her emotions, and respond to instructions (Peth-Pierce, R., vii). Research suggests that social/emotional school readiness is critical to a smooth transition to kindergarten and early school success. This is an important achievement—children who are not successful in the early years of school often fall behind from the start (Peth-Pierce, R., viii).
Healthy social/emotional development is rooted in infants’ and toddlers’ early relationships. In fact, one report on school readiness goes so far as to assert that: “What, how, and how much [children] learn depends on the social and emotional competence they have developed as preschoolers” (Peth-Pierce, R., v). But how can program leaders make clear the important contribution that quality infant/family services have on children’s later school success? The tips below provide some suggestions on how to discuss school readiness and the social/emotional development of very young children with external audiences like funders and policy-makers.
Tips for Discussing Infant Mental Health and School Readiness
- Discuss the link between secure attachment (a close, nurturing bond with a primary caregiver) established during a child’s first years of life and later social/emotional gains. These gains include the development of trust, empathy, compassion, generosity and a conscience. Furthermore, secure attachment relationships provide a context for supporting the development of children’s curiosity, self-direction, persistence, cooperation, caring, and conflict resolution skills. In short, loving, caring interactions—with parents and non-familial caregivers—gives children a strong emotional foundation from which they can approach learning with hope and optimism.
- Focus on social/emotional development during the infant/toddler years as the foundational skills that allow traditional school skills—literacy, numeracy—to develop. Without the ability to concentrate, persist with difficult tasks, communicate effectively and establish relationships with others, children are at a serious disadvantage in the classroom.
- Place school readiness goals in the context of infant/toddler development. Rote learning, flash cards, and one-size-fits-all approaches are developmentally inappropriate for very young children. Rather, learning for infants and toddlers takes place through play and active exploration of their environment. It is necessary to re-examine the concepts of “learning” and “skill development” to ensure our expectations are age-appropriate for infants and toddlers. For example, in this age group, playing dress-up helps to build symbolic thinking and communication skills, while cause/effect toys (e.g., a jack-in-the-box) help develop logical thinking.
- Point out that it is possible to begin providing children with exposure to literacy and numeracy concepts in their infant/toddler years. Although these experiences will often masquerade as play, they form the basis for how children perceive their own ability to learn and master new tasks. For example, encouraging literacy in a 6-month old may mean allowing her to explore a chunky board book with her eyes, hands, and mouth. While she may end up chewing it, she is learning that books offer her a positive, rewarding experience.
- Emphasize the central role that parents play in a child’s first years of life. Even the very best infant/family program cannot work alone. In addition to a nurturing, stimulating early education environment, children need a home where they are well-nourished, safe, and loved by family members. For this reason, it is crucial that infant/family programs support parents’ efforts to meet their children’s needs, whether these be in the social/emotional, health, or cognitive domains. When parents feel supported and have access to the resources they need, they, in turn, are better able to support their children’s growth and development.
- Peth-Pierce, R. (2000). A good beginning: Sending America’s children to school with the social and emotional competence they need to succeed (The Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network (FAN) Monograph). Bethesda, MD: The National Institute of Mental Health, Office of Communications and Public Liaison.
- National Education Goals Project. (1997). Getting a good start in school. [On-line]. Available: http://www.negp.gov/Reports/good-sta.htm