The social and emotional needs of a young primary aged child are always going to be quite high as they are in their formative years where they are exploring how they 'fit' in the world. Add to this a child that has mental health concerns, has experienced a trauma or is vulnerable due to circumstances out of their control, this makes trying to figure out who they are that much more difficult.
Children of this age are spending more and more time on technology making 'normal' social interactions, like imaginative play in the playground, chatting with peers, or being able to express how they are feeling, foreign experiences that they are unsure how to negotiate. With little support and/or encouragement from adult figures children will opt for the easier route of playing on their tablets or consoles rather than learning how to be with others.
Unfortunately most children with mental health concerns come from vulnerable backgrounds, with a parent that may also face their own struggles with mental health, or single-parent households where the parent is over worked and doesn't have a good support network. Often there is a knock-on effect as generations within the same household are affected. I have worked mostly with children that have been placed in the foster care system, and are now struggling with issues of attachment, and have to work through difficult feelings around abandonment and a general distrust of most adult figures.
As these children start out in the schooling system there are generally two types to keep your eye out for, the child that exhibits the challenging behaviour and the child that withdraws. They can often be seen to have mood swings, tantrum behaviour is evident and they struggle to form relationships in general. These children tend to be very observant and will remember even the most flippant remarks spoken - teachers! Watch your words!
Unfortunately these children are often labelled as 'naughty' and thought that just a 'firm' hand is needed. This couldn't be further from the truth. These children do not know how to play, or how to engage in positive social interactions and this is often where music therapy can play an important role by providing a safe and controlled space so that you can begin to introduce a child to play and often at primary school age there is an element of imaginative play that comes through in sessions. Recently I had a session where the child sang about 'someone else's' experiences of how they were naughty and "kicked the cat out the window!" By being able to project and sing about 'someone else' he was then able to rebuke them and even suggest a suitable punishment, showing his remorse in a different way.
Early intervention I would say is key with children with mental health concerns. Unfortunately very few nurseries or mainstream primary schools have these services available. Or when they do the need is so high the priority list is longer than the hours allotted for a music therapist. Often what happens with children whose emotional and social needs go by unnoticed is that they end up lacking in self-confidence and self-worth, which affects their ability to learn. They are then labelled or gmis-diagnosed and ultimately they may become school refusers, which leads to all sorts of anti-social behaviours. I have found it quite interesting that some government funded programmes will only provide therapy for children over the age of 14, would we not have maybe been able to avoid a lot of difficult behaviours if we addressed the problem earlier...?
In my experience of working with vulnerable children, there are a lot of insecurities that are masked by false bravado. I am currently working with a young girl who spends most of the session running around the room, ordering me around, trying to stay in control of the situation. But then we have moments where we find ourselves lying on the floor together watching the latest Taylor Swift music video on the iPad and she asks so many questions, "Why are the girls fighting?", "Do you think it's over a boy?" and it is in these moments that her vulnerabilities and her trying to make sense of the world around her becomes apparent. Where talking therapies haven't been successful the child s able to engage and begin to form a trusting relationship with an adult through the medium of music.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email firstname.lastname@example.org