Inclusion and wellbeing

Dr. Jessica Gomez on early childhood mental health

A conversation about the value of social and emotional development in early childhood
Dr. Jessica Gomez on mental health in early childhood
May 28, 2024
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In a rush? Here's the quick rundown.

  • Dr. Jessica Gomez, Clinical Psychologist and Executive Director of Momentous Institute, talks to Famly about the research that proves incorporating mental health and social and emotional learning into early childhood education leads to life-long benefits.
  • Momentous School uses their own research-based curriculum that equally prioritizes left-brain and right-brain.
  • She also shares simple and effective ways you can practically incorporate it into your classroom today - from art, to movement, to sensory walls and more.
  • Dr. Gomez also discusses how important a systemic approach is. Family members and ECE staff play a vital role in early childhood mental health and mental well-being
  • Watch the conversation below!

More and more research is showing that mental health should be talked about and integrated into early childhood education (ECE). After all, it is the time when our brains are going through the most significant development: by age 3, a brain is already about 80% of its adult size. So, if skills like pattern recognition and motor skills are so important, shouldn’t social and emotional skills, and mental well-being also be just as valuable to learn at that age?

You might be thinking, "mental health in infants and young children, really?" or, “but I don’t want to talk about depression and anxiety and mental illnesses with my toddler.” But, that’s not exactly what I’m saying. Mental health education looks different at each age. Let me explain what I mean - with Dr. Jessica Gomez’s expertise, of course.

Momentous Institute and Dr. Jessica Gomez

For over 100 years, Momentous Institute has been a leader in bringing awareness to mental health, and reducing the stigma around the topic. As Dr. Jessica Gomez simply says, “Mental health is just a part of the human experience.”

Dr. Gomez is a Bilingual Clinical Psychologist, and also the Executive Director of Momentous Institute. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about:

  • What is Momentous Institute?
  • Why is mental health so important in general?
  • Why should we teach mental health in ECE?
  • What does mental health education look like at such a young age?
  • What is the role of parents, families and ECE staff in children’s mental well-being?

Momentous Institute’s efforts in social-emotional development and mental health

It sometimes is hard to believe, but Dr. Gomez reminds us that mental health does have solutions. And by starting to incorporate it into early childhood education (ECE) and beginning to talk about it with the little ones, those solutions are more likely to be more successful.  

“At [a] minimum, [it can] create the awareness…that children can say something, or humans can say something, and then look for the help they need versus suffering in silence.”

Why is mental health so important?

Early on in our conversation, Dr. Gomez says something that is so simple. It should be so obvious, but in fact, is actually so counterintuitive to our social norm: We commonly look at physical and mental health as separate types of health. But, this separation is actually more detrimental.

Somehow physical health became considered more important, but really the two coexist and together encompass human health. It is essential for that to become integrated into society because that simple change of thought - of accepting that mental health is just as important as physical health - can “save lives and save suffering.

As mentioned above, Momentous Institute has been making waves and bringing much-needed attention to the importance of mental health and mental well-being for over 100 years. Dr. Gomez outlines the three pillars that Momentous primarily focus on: 

  1. Mental health support services like psychological testing, therapy and counseling for children and families
  2. Momentous School, which incorporates a research-based curriculum that equally incorporates both left-brain (math, science, reading, etc.) and right-brain (emotions, mental health, breathing and coping skills, etc.). This research is also done on-site with their own “lab” - for lack of a better word.
  3. Professional training and resources for educators, parents, families - anyone and everyone.

Isn’t preschool too young to talk about mental health?

You probably didn’t learn about neuroscience, or about your brain and the science behind emotions, until you were in high school or college. Or if you’re like me - you learned it, and it was super interesting, but you never really, truly, completely understood it. 

But, when I asked when Momentous Institute believes we should start talking about mental health, Dr. Gomez could not have answered faster: “as soon as possible.” 

“We live in this body our entire lives, yet we’re not receiving the education on breathing, our brain, emotions. Why not?”

She then shares some of the research behind this. 

But practically, how do you teach mental health in preschool?

So again, if you are like me, you probably are thinking, “how on earth do you teach children ages younger than 3 years old about their mental health and their brain?

But, after talking with Dr. Gomez, I realized that mental health education incorporates skills like emotional regulation, building positive and healthy relationships and learning how to ask for help. These skills are the building blocks of being able to cope today, tomorrow and in their future. 

After talking with Dr. Gomez, I now understand just how simple - and extremely effective - it can be to incorporate mental health into the little ones’ daily activities and lesson plans. Especially when using an integrative and holistic approach, such as planning activities with music, art, sensory objects, and more. 

A systemic approach is essential to mental well-being

Momentous Institute insists on utilizing a systemic approach for mental health education. It is something that the whole system, community and environment needs to cultivate and support, as there is a trickle-down effect.

In other words, any adult that is caring for children needs to prioritize their own mental well-being. It’s similar to the idea of co-regulation: you can’t help an emotionally dysregulated child calm down when you are also stirred up or agitated. Similarly, one cannot try to teach children positive mental health, breathing and coping skills when they are not prioritizing or incorporating it into their own lives.

Dr. Gomez talks about how Momentous supports the families of children by checking in on them, and engaging them in mental health services. 

More on that systemic approach, ECE staff and educators also need to be supported in their personal mental well-being. This is largely influenced by the preschool or childcare center, and it’s policies and values.

Simply, prioritizing mental health should be deeply integrated into the culture of the preschool, childcare center, the home, and all other environments that a child is growing and developing in. 

Momentous Institute’s research says it all

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Gomez touched on research that supports introducing mental well-being at a young age. But, I wanted to give her a chance to share more about the extremely valuable and insightful research that Momentous has contributed to mental health. You can find numbers, percentages and all data on their website, but instead of “boring us with statistics,” Dr. Gomez provides a brief - but just as informative and inspiring - summary.

“You know, we’ve proven at Momentous that invest early, make it digestible, leads to lifelong outcomes that are positive not just for the child, for the family, but for community,” and “the outcomes persist throughout life.”

But, it’s so much more impactful when you hear it from her yourself. 

Want more informaton?

You can always visit Momentous Institute's website and their resources page here.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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