Dr O’Connor says previous research has revealed that children’s mental health challenges can have an impact on their school learning.
“Our study shows that we also need to know how children’s mental health skills are developing, as these help prepare them to learn in the classroom.
“Around one quarter of children in our study had very poor mental health (many challenges and few skills).
“A similar number of children had excellent mental health (many skills and few challenges).
“Children with very poor mental health had more early learning difficulties than children with excellent mental health.”
MCRI’s Senior Principal Research Fellow of Policy, Equity and Transition, Professor Sharon Goldfeld, says the study found that around 20 per cent of children with very poor mental health experienced early learning difficulties, while less than one per cent of children with excellent mental health experienced these difficulties.
“Promoting early school success is easier and more cost effective than trying to fix a child’s difficulties in the later years of their schooling,” Professor Goldfeld says.
“These results highlight the strong connection between mental health and learning, and show how important it is that health and education services work together.
“Currently interventions targeting child mental health challenges like anxiety are mostly offered by medical and health services, while interventions targeting mental health skills, like getting along with other children, are mostly in the education area."
Dr O’Connor says that going to preschool or kindergarten before starting school helps children learn to manage their emotions and develop social relationships with other children.
“Going to preschool also helps children develop early learning skills that help them do well at school," she says.
“It is important to make sure all children have access to a high quality preschool program in the year before starting school.”
Dr O’Connor says that schools can identify children with challenges and offer them relevant support and services.
“Some schools also have programs that aim to improve mental health skills for all their students, such as classes that teach children about how to understand and manage different emotions,” she says.
“The next step for schools is to better coordinate the ways they work towards improving mental health skills for all children, and the additional supports and services they provide for those children who are experiencing mental health challenges.”
Dr O’Connor says schools and governments also need to consider how to respond to the specific needs of children from families experiencing disadvantage.
“Children who start school without the skills needed to help them learn are put at an early disadvantage, and it is often very hard for them to catch up,” she says.
“Successful early learning makes learning at later ages easier and helps children feel motivated to learn.”