Children have a lot on their minds. They are trying to grasp basic concepts that most adults assume they know- concepts like time, sequence, cause and effect, prediction and estimation. They are testing out various theories about who they are in relation to other people. And they are constructing a personal narrative to explain how and why things happen to them. It helps if they are tackling these tasks within caring families. But even with support, there are challenges. And how they are resolved can directly impact children’s mental health.
A conceptual understanding of the world is essential to children’s mental health. Children who lack a clear understanding of cause and effect are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again – because they don’t see that what happens at Point A affects the result at Point B. They are easily frustrated, often failing to see the patterns in everyday routines that allow peers be efficient and productive. Their personal narratives are marred by feelings of inadequacy and failure. If left unattended, this cognitive weakness can lead to low motivation and other self-defeating behaviors.
Children who struggle to understand time and sequence have a hard time learning how to self-soothe or feel better. We all know how a rush of negative emotions can periodically throw us off our game. But if we understand time, we understand that “this too shall pass”. And we can activate a sequence of self-soothing behaviors that made us feel better in the past.
Children who don’t understand time can be terrified of strong emotions because they have no way of knowing when and if they’ll end. Frozen in time, they are unable to initiate steps to feel better. Their personal narratives reflect fear and avoidance rather than curiosity and self-reliance.
Given the importance of concept development, universal supports to children’s mental need to include explicit instruction on the core concepts that inform so much of what we do all day. Children need opportunities to practice these concepts, and recognize them within the contexts of daily routines. Once internalized they can help children use cognition to protect and nurture their own mental health.