Some pretty significant research has been recently published suggesting that 1 out of every 5 children entering kindergarten has mental health challenges. This study, conducted with a sample of over 400 children in the 1990s, accompanies the growing call for prevention and early intervention. Rightly so, as mental health providers agree that the earlier that symptoms are treated, likely the better the prognosis.
Until relatively recently, it was assumed that young children could not be mentally ill. “How can a cute, drooling 10 month old have depression?” But the research is only just beginning to uncover the truth behind little ones’ mental health needs. Children aren’t as innocent and naive as once believed. They experience situations in ways similar to older children and adults. And likely, they have less resources to cope with difficulties because they are emotionally immature, cannot verbalize, etc.
So we hear a statistic like 1 in 5. But what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Take an average kindergarten class. Say you have 15 children in the class. That’s 3 that likely have mental health issues. 3 seems pretty small. But say you have one thousand children entering kindergarten that year. That will give you two hundred 5-year-olds with mental health issues. The repercussions are astounding. Success in school can be thwarted by these issues; inability to focus on what the teacher is saying, what you’re supposed to being doing with your worksheets, difficulties making and keeping friends, and so on.
The force behind the early intervention movement emphasizes that if these issues aren’t addressed, they likely grow over time, snowballing into bigger problems. The 5-year-old entering kindergarten who is afraid of strangers may not be able to manage their anxiety and this affects how much information they retain. Fast forward to their first required standardized exam and their results will likely reflect all of the information that slid past them because they spent their school day consumed by fear.
What this research suggests is that we must all become aware of the red flags. We need to have an idea of mental health challenges in young children; be it learning difficulties, language delays, behavior problems or mood dysregulation. It is incumbent upon us to know when something isn’t quite right about a kid and seek out assistance to give them a better start in academia. Besides, don’t most of us wish we could go back to those carefree, kindergarten days?