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Improving students’ mental health is paramount not only to fostering their health, but also their academic and lifelong success. When the brain cannot manage emotional responses, it impairs thinking. When thinking is impaired, we cannot learn.

Each day we are seeing disturbing new studies about the mental health of our schoolchildren and college students. We must address this crisis. But it is critical also to focus on the mental health of our youngest population, including newborns, often dubbed “the Covid generation.”

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are an important window for development. The first pandemic babies, born in March 2020, are nearly 900 days old now.

A study conducted by researchers at Brown University found that children born during the pandemic have “significantly reduced verbal, motor and cognitive performance as compared to children born pre-pandemic.” The study noted pandemic babies’ “disrupted” educational experiences, isolation, “limited explorative play” and lack of interaction with other children.

Children born during the pandemic have “significantly reduced verbal, motor and cognitive performance as compared to children born pre-pandemic.”

As a clinical psychologist with 35 years of experience in child development and early childhood education, I know it is far easier to prevent issues than repair them. Before we can help children learn we must first focus on developing their ability to cope with and manage their big emotions — both positive and negative.

Why? Because emotions matter. Emotion is central in all we do, not only in our thinking and behavior, but also in learning. There is a direct connection between emotions and learning. All children are born with emotion as their first language. But they are not born with the ability to manage and regulate their emotions; they must develop these skills to build a strong and positive sense of self and be successful in learning and in life.

We do this by helping children from the earliest years develop the building blocks of emotional intelligence and emotional competence.

The developing brains of children from birth to three are very malleable, informed and shaped by daily experiences. Children learn through imitation and observation, and how we model, guide, and respond to them and to others. They are emotional detectives, tuning into the actions, reactions, responses and behaviors of the adults around them. Developing these key empathic responsive relationships is foundational not only to their healthy brain development, but also their mental health, well-being and learning.

Related: How the pandemic is affecting babies’ brains

Optimal learning happens when we’re able to manage stress and anxiety. Learning to be aware of and constructively manage our own emotions and understand those of others results in having more available energy to focus, attend to and grasp new concepts. It also enhances our capacity to be empathic, compassionate and kind.

By laying the foundation for emotional intelligence from the start, we can provide children with a toolkit to successfully manage their emotions throughout their lives.

Educators and parents can help children develop emotional intelligence and competence by finding opportunities to talk about emotions:

  • Using books to expose children to facial and body language visual emotion cues, such as smiles, tears, clenched jaws or fists, frowns, furrowed brows or hunched shoulders.
  • Asking prompting questions when reading a storybook, such as “What is the character feeling?” “How do we know they are feeling this way?” and “What would help them feel better?”
  • Connecting the emotions they recognize in others to their own experiences by asking “Have you ever felt this way?” “What made you feel that way?” and “What helped you feel better?”
  • Identifying their emotions and those of others in the heat of the moment and helping them to express those emotions, such as by saying “You see tears coming down your friend’s face, what do you think is making them sad?”
  • Encouraging them to respond appropriately to their friends’ emotions by trying to understand what caused the emotion and then focusing on a solution.

But all this requires adults to be aware of our own emotions first.  Think of the old airplane oxygen mask rule — parents must put on their own masks before helping their children put on theirs. The same is true for caregivers’ mental health and well-being:  When caregivers are able to self-reflect and manage their own emotions, they can better model for and guide children in developing self-regulation through co-regulation.

For example, guided deep breathing works for adults and children. If a caregiver feels overwhelmed or exasperated, by focusing on calming themselves they’ll then be in the right mental state to engage in co-regulation and help children calm down through the same guided deep-breathing exercise.

We need to start implementing these and other supportive practices as soon as possible. Fortunately, we’re seeing an increased focus throughout the nation on youth mental health, including the U.S. surgeon general’s declaration of a children’s mental health crisis, along with additional funding to support access to behavioral health services.

We have an extraordinary opportunity to change course, especially in early childhood education. We can set every child on the best path forward, closing gaps and opening doors of opportunity for all to learn and thrive. Now is the time.

Donna Housman is a psychologist in the field of child development and early childhood education. She founded the Housman Institute and its lab school/early childhood development center.

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