In Hong Kong, despite recognition of the importance in promoting social and emotional health in the school system, schools have been slow to incorporate emotional health as part of mental health literacy into their structure.
Early childhood teachers play a crucial role in the development of emotional literacy and competence in young children, but there is a substantial gap in their training in the area of socio-emotional development and emotional intelligence.
Along with the skills and knowledge required to design a curriculum suitable for this age group, an early childhood teacher needs to be aware of the emotional difficulties, or sometimes trauma, a child may be experiencing and be equipped to support them according to Professor Lawrence Lam.
Professor Lam, an epidemiologist, medical statistician and research psychologist, who works with both the UTS Faculty of Health and the UTS Graduate School of Health, is undertaking a research project to assist teachers who interact on a daily basis with vulnerable young children in East Asia.
"I have been exposed to many different issues as an aftermath of trauma and children can have a lot of psychological traumatic experiences which can develop into quite severe mental health and developmental issues," Professor Lam said.
As part of an initiative focused on enhancing the emotional involvement of early childhood teachers, Professor Lam has received funding from the Hong Kong government to train more than 200 teachers, which will translate into 2000 to 3000 young children directly benefiting from the training.
The first of the training programs took place earlier this year. A "train-the-trainer" workshop, designed by a clinical psychologist and an early childhood education specialist, provided teachers the framework and skills to clinically design a curriculum that is suitable for young children who are of a pre-primary school age.
Teachers also learned how to better interact with parents and care givers, developing skills on how to listen and communicate effectively.
"Early childhood teachers are part of the team partnering with parents as the main resource for the development of good mental health and emotional well-being in young children," Professor Lam said. "The investment in early childhood teachers is also an investment in a healthy future generation.
"The teachers will gain firsthand experience in communicating their own emotional experience to others – also to their students – and act as a model for young children within the education system."
The program will continue to grow and expand throughout the year, with a series of train-the-trainer workshops and practical skills taught to teachers. Professor Lam is hoping to bring the program to Australia based upon the Hong Kong experience.
Professor Lam has a background in medical science, majoring in pharmacology. He then moved into psychology and worked in public health, further broadening his training with a PhD in epidemiology and medical statistics.
He currently splits his time between the Faculty of Health and the Graduate School of Health where he will be conducting a series of epidemiology and statistics workshops over both semesters for all post graduate students and staff, as a joint function between both faculties.