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Mental Health and Wellness in Head Start

A woman laughs joyously in a café. A man cries at the end of a sad movie. A toddler whines as she looks for her favorite toy. Happiness…sadness…frustration… these are all emotions that are regularly experienced by everyone from infants to the elderly. Emotions are shaped by our biology and environment, and how we think, feel, and act is shaped by mental health. What does mental health mean for a child? A Head Start staff member? A family unit?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” WHO’s definition of mental health aligns with many of the goals of Head Start programs around the country.

"Early childhood educators must be well to do well."

In 2014, Child Trends wrote “early childhood educators must be well to do well.” Yet early childhood educators suffer disproportionately from poor mental and physical health. Why? Preparing children to succeed in kindergarten, and ultimately in life, can be stressful - and supporting the emotional needs of children who've experienced trauma or instability can create an added toll. This stress affects both physical and mental wellbeing. Early childhood educators are severely underpaid in comparison to kindergarten and elementary school teachers, creating personal and financial stress that piles on top of workplace stress. In Head Start, where many of our children and families face a wide range of challenges, staff strive to meet everyone’s needs. Taken together, these stresses can undermine mental health and have powerful effects on absences, performance, and engagement in the workplace, so it’s important both at an individual level and at the employer level. We know that staff mindfulness matters, but are there solutions to this complicated problem?

Mental health isn’t just limited to adults or the workplace. Children’s earliest years have lasting effects on their lifelong wellness and mental health. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child calls these early experiences biological “memories.” With children, just as with early childhood educators, stress has serious, adverse effects, affecting brain development, the cardiovascular and immune systems, and metabolism. Three factors can create a positive early mental health context for children: stable, healthy relationships with adults; an environment free from fear and toxins; and good nutrition. How can we build and contribute to an environment that supports these three factors, and what can be done when a child is facing scarcity in one or more of these areas?

The following resources and research aim to provide guidance and examples of how you can support child and staff wellness in your daily work....


This blog post is an excerpt from NHSA's monthly Research Blast newsletter, which also includes background research and useful resources for each month's topic. To receive the newsletter each month, become an NHSA member today!
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