Recognizing Mental Health Issues in Young Children

Mother holding her sonMADISON—A psychologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health is stressing the importance of promoting mental health in young children and recognizing and treating mental health problems in children in its earliest stages during National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day.


"The earlier mental health concerns are identified in the child, the stronger likelihood for a better prognosis," said Dr. Roseanne Clark. "Children's Mental Health Awareness Day 2010 will specifically focus on early childhood with the key message being that positive social and emotional development is essential to a child's healthy development from birth, and this is supported through sensitive, responsive and consistent relationships with parents and caregivers."


Clark said children can show signs of social and emotional disturbances as early as the first year of life.


"This may be seen in feeding and sleep disturbances, extreme sensitivity to sounds or touch, or difficulty in social communication," she said. "Two-to-five year olds may show more aggression, hyperactivity or withdrawn behavior. Young children may also suffer from depression or anxiety. If not treated right away, these could lead to the inability to focus, concentrate and learn in school, difficulty relating to peers and other challenging behaviors that may lead to significant mental health disorders when the child gets older."


Clark is co-director with Dr. Linda Tuchman-Ginsberg, program director for early childhood professional development at the Waisman Center, of a new post-graduate program at the University of Wisconsin to train mental health providers and professionals in health care, early intervention, home visitation and child care on how to detect and treat early signs of mental illness and promote healthy social and emotional development in young children and their families.


The Wisconsin Infant, Early Childhood, and Family Mental Health Certificate Program will begin in June. Faculty will include national and state experts as faculty including pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Daniel Siegel, and psychotherapist Rebecca Shahmoon Shanok.


Shanok will help launch the new program on May 7 with a special all-day class entitled "Peers and Play: Addressing the Mental Health Care Needs of Young Children in Early Childhood Settings." Shanok will offer effective approaches for early identification of social and emotional difficulties in young children and the integration of mental health interventions in child care.


The certificate program is offered through Professional Development and Applied Studies, UW Division of Continuing Studies, and has been developed in partnership with the UW Department of Psychiatry, the Waisman Center, and the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, with support from several state agencies and the Celebrate Children Foundation.


Clark said UW-Madison is the first university to offer a program of this type in Wisconsin and one of a growing number nationally.


"Many of those who will be participating in this exciting professional development program work in health care clinics and hospitals, Head Start and other early childhood programs as well as child abuse prevention and child welfare agencies,” said Clark.


One focus of the program will be to provide early childhood professionals with sensitive and effective strategies for supporting young children with probable mental health concerns.


"The growing rate of day care expulsions is a very real concern," said Clark.


According to the Supporting Families Together Association (SFTA), a non-profit group that supports quality care, resources and education for children, 68 percent of Wisconsin child care providers have asked a family to leave their program due to their child's challenging behaviors, such as biting and hitting, at some time in their career, and 52 percent have asked a family to leave within the last two years.


"It is equally important that the growing knowledge of early childhood mental health reaches both mental health professionals as well as those caring for young children on a daily basis," said Tuchman.

Date Published: 05/06/2010

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