Radio National with Elizabeth Jackson - Launch of Connections: early childhood educators resource

  • Assistant Minister for Education

The Hunter Institute in New South Wales is unveiling its Connections guide for childcare workers, to help them look for early signs of mental illness in children.

One of Australia's leading mental health organisations has warned that children with mental illness are often overlooked. Today the Hunter Institute in New South Wales is unveiling a guide for childcare workers, to help them look for early signs of mental illness in one million Australian children in childcare. Here's our social affairs correspondent, Norman Hermant.

At a childcare centre in central Sydney, tears from a young boy are just another indication of the challenges early childhood educators face every day. One million Australian children aged up to eight years old regularly spend time in childcare. The Hunter Institute, one of Australia's leading mental health organisations, says like everyone children also experience mental illness. Jaelea Skehan is the Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

We know with all mental health difficulties that the earliest possible time in which we can identify if difficulties are occurring, we can get additional support if it's needed for those children and families, the better off the mental health and wellbeing is going to be not just of children and families, but communities across Australia.

During Mental Health Week the Institute is unveiling its federally funded guide, called Connections, intended for the staff at childcare centres. The Federal Minister responsible for Childcare, Sussan Ley, says childcare workers may often be the first to spot potential problems.

The educators that have been here for years know these children extremely well, so they're the best-placed people to say: something's not right today, what do we need to do? And sensitively look at that issue with the family.

The guide helps workers identify when children might be experiencing mental illness, showing signs of anxiety or depression, or suffering from neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, or attention hyperactivity disorder. Of course, separating normal behaviour from patterns that might need special attention is not easy, especially when tell-tale signs include defiance, tantrums and over-activity - not exactly rare behaviour in children. At KU Phillip Park Childcare Centre Director Marina Bugden says the guide will help parse the difference between normal and activity that may raise concerns.

We're looking for repetitive behaviour, behaviour that we wouldn't normally see in children of that age, or the signs that a child's behaviour has possibly changed.

The Connections guide will be distributed to childcare centres across the country. The hope is, more than ever, childcare workers will be on the same page when it comes to children's mental health.

Norman Hermant with that report.

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