Children’s mental health – an asset for learning

An MCRI led study expands our understanding of what early skills help children to thrive at school, showing positive mental health is an asset for learning.

Boosting academic learning is a key strategy for improving children’s health, development and life opportunities, especially for children who start school developmentally behind their peers.

Unfortunately, academic skills are declining in Australian schools. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment trends show that over the past decade, the skills of Australian children have been declining in the areas of reading, science, and mathematics. Opportunities to boost academic learning are therefore a priority.

Children’s mental health incorporates both:

  • mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety and behaviour problems, and
  • positive mental health (also termed mental health competence or social and emotional wellbeing) which refers to children’s psychosocial functioning.

Positive mental health is an asset for learning

The study found that children’s positive mental health when they start school relates to their academic performance across a range of children’s learning areas in Grade 3.

Implications of the study

This has implications for the 20% of Australian children who are arriving at school developmentally vulnerable or at risk, specifically in the domains of social competence and emotional maturity.

As children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to experience social and emotional difficulties during the pre-school period, improving children’s positive mental health could also be a strategy for improving academic success and reducing differences in academic learning for disadvantaged children.

This would complement efforts to address mental health difficulties and disorder, which similarly have a negative impact on learning pathways at school.

How can we promote positive mental health in the early years?

In recent years, school-based programs targeting positive mental health have become more common. This study provides robust evidence to support the link between positive mental health and learning, however more evidence on specific school-based interventions is needed.

Evidence suggests that programs that enable positive and stable adult-child relationships in the home and early education and care settings help to promote social and emotional school readiness skills. Once children begin school, nurturing teacher-child relationships, safe and inclusive school communities, and family-school partnerships are beneficial for building both social and emotional skills and creating stimulating learning environments.

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