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How mental health impacts on learning

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Serious conversation with a child

Credit: Zivkovic

Australian researchers have found a link between the mental health of five year olds and their ability to learn at school. This highlights the importance of preschool programs which help children learn to manage emotions and develop relationships, and may hold the key to ensuring all children begin school ready to learn.

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) researchers analysed teacher-reported data for more than 302,000 Australian children in their first year of primary school and identified a strong relationship between child mental health and early learning. The research has been published in the School Mental Health journal.

The research paper Profiles of Mental Health Competence and Difficulties as Predictors of Children’s Early Learning focused on two key areas of early learning: (1) communication skills and general knowledge; and (2) language and problem-solving.

They used data from the Australian Early Development Census, a nationwide data collection that shows how young children have developed as they start their first year of school.

School teachers of children in their first year of full-time school answered questions for each child in their class.

First author and MCRI Centre for Community Child Health Policy and Equity Research Assistant Dr Elodie O’Connor says some children start school with anxieties or problems managing their behaviour, and this can make it hard for them to focus on learning in the classroom.

“Important early learning skills include being able to use language, solve problems, and communicate with others,” Dr O’Connor says.

“Another important part of children’s mental health is being confident, curious, and getting along well with other children.

“As such, mental health includes both challenges such as anxieties and behaviour problems; and skills such as being able to get along well with their friends.

“We were interested in how the combination of these mental health challenges and skills relate to how children learn in the classroom.”

Going to preschool also helps children develop early learning skills that help them do well at school. It is important to make sure all children have access to a high quality preschool program in the year before starting school.
Dr Elodie O’Connor

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.”