The foundations of good social emotional health begin at birth. All Children develop within the environment of their families, communities and cultural backgrounds. Young children develop socially and emotionally in the context of a safe secure relationship with parents and caregivers that supports them to explore and learn. An infant’s brain develops through happy health people who interact with him/her on a daily basis. As children grow they learn to regulate their emotions and to develop positive relationships through play. PLAY is the work of all children.
During the middle childhood years – ages six to twelve – children undergo remarkable social and emotional changes. As they mature cognitively they develop the skills to solve problems and collaborate. These skills assist them to develop and maintain relationships with peers. They are much more able than they were in the early childhood years to regulate their emotions and to respond in ways that allow them to make friends and to cooperate with others. Children begin to spend more time with friends in group activities.
Youth undergo rapid physical and cognitive changes as they continue to develop socially and emotionally. Peer relationships remain an important part of life and become deeper and more meaningful. During this period, adolescents begin to establish their identities, make plans for the future and work towards goals.
It’s hard work becoming socially and emotionally competent, especially for children and youth who may need a little extra help. Explicit teaching and providing opportunities for children to practice labelling and expressing emotions; self-regulate; problem solving during conflicts, learn how to be a good friend, and make good decisions are some of the skill necessary to live a healthy and fulfilling life.
Neurodiversity may include diagnosis such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), intellectual disability, communication disorders, developmental coordination disorder, autism, down syndrome, and specific learning disabilities.
Associated medical or genetic conditions as well as environmental factors such as premature birth and/or prenatal alcohol or drug exposure can also contribute to delays in social emotional development.
Children and youth with an acquired brain injury, complex developmental trauma or chronic stress may experience temporary or permanent interruption in their social emotional development. Regardless of the circumstances, these children and youth can be more vulnerable to Anxiety and Depression.
While a diagnosis provides information for parent/caregivers and professionals to understand how to best support a child or youth, it is more important that we understand individual strengths and specific challenges with functioning. What is hard? Who helps you and makes you feel safe and happy? What do you do that brings you joy and makes you smile? This is a great place to start in promoting social and emotional health in our children and youth.
Promoting Social Emotional Health
Acquiring social emotional competencies take time and can be especially difficult for children and youth with special needs.
What do we need to know? First, when a child has a “brain-based” or neurodevelopmental condition it can be difficult for them to complete tasks the way others do. It might be hard to follow multi-step instructions, even for an older child or youth. It might be frustrating for parent/caregivers to understand why their child completed a task easily yesterday, but today just can’t get it right. This type of inconsistency is very common for a child whose brain just works differently.
We can promote social emotional health by learning about the brain. What things are easy and what things are hard and can be frustrating for our children and youth. It might be school work, or interacting with friends or keeping calm when we are feeling big emotions. Being patient and non-judgemental is important. It isn’t that children don’t want to work hard and do well, but sometimes they can’t do things the way we ask them to. Often, we need to act as an “external brain” to help them learn.
Good mental wellness comes when a child feels joy every day. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Have a laugh by watching a funny video, telling a joke or a funny story. Share a joyful experience with a family member or friend. When life gets difficult support your child by being empathetic and acknowledging their feelings. Don’t provide opportunities to avoid or escape difficulties, but rather find ways to help your children and youth push through the difficulties. Remind them that at the end of the day, especially a tough day, they can be kind to themselves by doing something they enjoy, spending time with someone special including a pet, maybe taking a bath or reading a book – they need to decide what works for them.
Promoting mental wellness also starts with us as parent/caregivers and other adults in children and youth’s lives. How do we take care of ourselves? Who can we talk to? What can we do to be kind to ourselves at the end of the day? This is hard work – but well worth it!
Having a sense of belonging and contributing at school, at home and in our community is one of the most important factors for positive mental health. What are some of the ways the children and youth can independently contribute – a chore at home; a special job at school?
Children and youth are always communicating with adults – sometimes this communication is verbal, but often it is through behaviours. Many children who are labelled as having “challenging behaviours” are doing their best to expressed that they are not okay. Maybe their class environment is too loud or chaotic, maybe at home they are feeling too rushed or don’t fully understand what they are being asked to do. Children with “invisible” disabilities are most vulnerable to being labelled as uncooperative or defiant. There are many reasons why children and youth struggle and as adults it is up to us to work with them to figure out how to improve their functioning. Ask! You might be amazed at their response.
Inclusion can be promoted in many different ways depending on a child’s needs. At home a child may need some snuggle time. For some children and youth this might be being included in activities in a similar way as all their peers at school. A child in a wheelchair may be able to be provided with adaptive seating so they can sit with their friends during circle time. When the classroom is too noisy and feels overwhelming there are supportive tools for all children in the class to use such as noise cancelling headphones, wiggle cushions or standing desks. In the community a program may provide opportunity to engage in outdoor or gym play that includes lots of opportunity for physical movement. This can be helpful for some children prior to engaging in seated tasks that require more focus.
How do you know when a child is included rather than just present in a program or classroom? Consider the following: are they engaged and participating in the way that works for them; are they happy and having joyful moments; is someone in the child’s world asking how might Jane share an experience with her peers? Ask, especially for older children and youth, about their experiences.
When we connect with children and youth we start with the belief that they will do well if they can (Dr. Ross Greene). Working together with children, youth, families, and those who are important to a young person, leads to effective interventions, positive relationships and supportive environments, all of which promote optimum social emotional health for neurodiverse children and youth.