What does children's mental health (CMH) have to do with social and emotional learning (SEL)? How can we draw connections between these two areas of work so that children learn better and are healthier?
Viewing children's mental health as a public health issue brings common ground to this conversation. Public health encourages us to look beyond a child and a specific diagnosis toward dynamic, ecological systems in which both CMH and SEL are influenced.
A child's mental health status is influenced by her internal state, but also by experiences within her family, school or community. A child's mental health at a given time may be affected as much by parental conflict or community violence as by a diagnosed condition.
The public health approach emphasizes optimal mental health for everyone, not just those who are sick. We all have a state of mental health that changes throughout our lives - sometimes it may include a diagnosis and sometimes not. The idea of mental health promotion underscores the importance of motivating and supporting all children in striving toward their own version of optimal health.
Sometimes "mental health" is confused with "mental illness", but these two are not the same, nor are they opposite ends of one spectrum. The figure below, published in Promoting Youth Mental Health through the Transition from High School, illustrates two dimensions creating four quadrants - children can experience good mental health with a diagnosis, and poor mental health without a diagnosis. And, importantly for the work of SEL and CMH practitioners, children both with and without illness can reach an optimal level of mental health.In her blog post "Essential ingredients of social and emotional learning", Kate Walker illustrates the five core SEL competencies of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework in a nutrition chart - one "serving" of a youth program includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making. Clearly these core competencies are essential to good mental health.
A public health practitioner would view these "ingredients" as protective factors - they help children maintain good mental health during ordinary days, and also when they experience adversity. Children with mental illness don't necessarily lack these competencies -- in fact, managing their illness may require advanced skills in areas such as self-awareness and self-management.
To some, teaching SEL concepts aims to maximize learning, but to many, including Dr. Gil Noam in his May, 2014 presentation Social and Emotional Learning: Assess It to Address It, SEL is used more and more in broad ways to improve health. Both SEL and CMH practitioners are interested in promoting healthy relationships, responsible decision-making, and good citizenship. These skills can be taught in many realms of that ecological setting - after-school programs, community centers, clinics, etc.
So how can we shift both our perspective of mental illness and our approaches to social and emotional learning and mental health service delivery to better serve kids? Does a public health framework help us get there? What might be our next steps?
Extension educator, Children, Youth & Family Consortium, which is part of the Extension Center for Family Development
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