Children's Mental Health Explained

Posted by Rachel Vogel-Quinn on Feb 8, 2018 12:56:45 PM

Ashley Bertsch is an early childhood mental health consultant at the child care centers that participate in Book Buddy. Her position is funded by United Way of Central Iowa's Women's Leadership Connection, which is committed to ensuring that our youngest students have the best start in education and in life.

Ashley Bertsch.png

Ashley's overarching goal is to help ensure school readiness, specifically related to important social and emotional skills. Here, she answers questions about children's mental health, trauma, and literacy.

Q: What is children's mental health?

A: Mental health is the way we think, feel, relate to others, handle stress, and make decisions. It also includes the way we see ourselves. Mental health is important at every stage of life.

I think this is still a challenging concept for many people to grasp—that infants, toddlers, and children have mental health.

Book Buddy Results 

Book Buddy volunteers, who spend 40 minutes a week reading with 4-year-olds and preparing them for kindergarten, can feel confident they are making an impact.

Three years later, in first grade, the Book Buddy students scored 10% higher than their Des Moines Public School peers who didn't participate in Book Buddy on the FAST assessment for reading readiness.

Read More

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around mental health. There are children that demonstrate challenging behaviors and the emergence of mental health disorders, but the idea itself puts families on the defensive and prevents appropriate services from being put into place.

Much of the time I spend talking with families is spent reframing this concept and breaking it down in a way that is less threatening or overwhelming. Unfortunately, on a larger level, we have a mental health crisis in the state that doesn’t help with this challenge.

Q: Tell us about the work you do.

A: I am a licensed independent social worker and an early childhood mental health consultant. I go out to high-risk child care centers—all of those supported by Book Buddy—and provide both programmatic and child- and family-centered consultation. The overarching goal of my position is to help ensure school readiness, specifically related to those ever so important social and emotional skills. I work with the teachers on the overall classroom environment. This work is generally focused on classroom management skills, teaching social skills, relationship building, and interactions.

In some situations, I receive a referral for a particular child, which is generally due to behavioral concerns in the classroom. After observation and assessment, I provide child-specific interventions and recommendations and support the program in implementation. Many times, this also includes referring the child and family on for additional services.

Q: What is the impact of trauma on a child?

A: The impact of trauma is personal. What might be overwhelming or threatening to one child may not be experienced that way by another. Nonetheless, trauma has a significant impact on the emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, and physical functioning of children.

Experiencing a traumatic event has the capacity to overwhelm the coping skills that have previously been successful in helping a child handle expected challenges in life. Additionally, trauma can often cause children to lose their sense of safety and security. A child’s reaction will depend upon the severity of the trauma, their developmental phase, their personality makeup, their coping style, and the availability of support to assist the child in understanding and working through the traumatic event.

Children’s reactions to trauma can vary tremendously but can often be mistaken for depression, oppositional behaviors, anger and aggression (behavior disorders), attention deficits, or attachment concerns.

The exciting part is that supportive relationships can reduce the impact and even prevent a threatening situation from being experienced as trauma.

Q: How does the impact of trauma show up in a child's literacy?

A: Dr. Dan Siegel introduced the idea of the upstairs and downstairs brain as a way to discuss how the brain works. The downstairs brain is the more primal area of our brain that is focused on survival. This part of our brain regulates breathing, heart rate, and other basic functions. It also houses the emotional core of our brain and our survival reaction to stress—the fight, flight, freeze response. The upstairs area of our brain is where all the higher functions occur, like decision making, problem solving, self-regulation, impulse control, relationship building, and such.

For children who have experienced trauma, they are often stuck in their downstairs brain, focusing on survival. When children can’t access their upstairs brain or frontal lobe, being able to focus and create the necessary brain connections to develop literacy skills is going to be a tremendous challenge. If children could, they would.

In a nutshell, trauma has the capacity to prevent children from accessing the part of their brain that is necessary to develop these higher level functions such as literacy skills.

Q: And do we see this connection reflected in the Book Buddy assessments?

A: Absolutely! We see a tremendous correlation between mental health concerns or lacking social/emotional skills and lower literacy skills and scores. Generally, the observation is either that the child’s brain is in survival mode preventing the child from creating the necessary connections to develop these skills or that their behaviors prevent them from participating and learning the information. Both go hand-in-hand.

Q: What can volunteers do to encourage and support their Book Buddies?

A: I believe we often overthink this part! It really is so simple from a mental health and social/emotional standpoint.

The most important thing you can do is really focus on building that relationship and connecting with your Buddy.

Research has shown that supportive relationships can prevent or minimize the possible impact of potentially traumatic experiences for children—and help children to cope and thrive. How powerful is that?

You have the capacity to make such an impact on a child’s life that has such a tremendous short and long-term influence.

Here are some other thoughts:

  • Be consistent in your attendance and present during your time with your buddy. Many of these children have had so many people in and out of their lives. Consistency, predictability, and being present and available are the very things these children are looking for.
  • Questions are wonderful tools! They allow the child to help guide the conversation and provide you with information that will help you to get to know your buddy better. Kids love having someone show an interest in them! Don’t overthink it.
  • As I’m sure you all know, there are many children that won’t be able to make it through the entire book, and that is just fine. This is the perfect opportunity to engage in conversation. Pushing the child to focus on the book if they are struggling to do so will likely lead to some unwanted behaviors.
  • Be kind and have fun! Voice volume and tone are so important. It can make or break any attempt at establishing a relationship. Being loud or harsh can ruin a relationship before it even begins. Kids are really smart. They often know if we are frustrated or angry before we realize it ourselves. As adults, our attitude and mood are the dominant one in the relationship and set the tone for the interaction.