Victoria Mirales

Mental Illness in Young Children

University of Texas at San Antonio

            Today is like every other day for Bobby and his mother, they eat breakfast and get ready for school. As Bobby and his mom arrive at school, Bobby looks like all the other little boys in his preschool classroom.  As Bobby’s mom talks with his teacher about how their morning went and he goes off to play with his friends.

            As the morning goes on, the teacher tells Bobby that he needs to clean up his toys before he moves on to another center. Bobby gets mad and yells at the teacher, the teacher explains that he can go play in another center, but he needs to clean up first. Bobby looks at the teacher, places a finger near his one side of his neck, as he moves this finger from one side to the other, he looks at the teacher and says, “I’m gonna cut you!”

            When teachers encounter these types of situations as early childhood educator, how does one respond to a child like this? The purpose of this paper is to help early childhood educators understand the symptoms of mental illness in young children.

Why is this topic important?

         This topic is important because there are so many children who are not being identify with a mental disorder and it will affect them throughout their life. In today’s society, we hear every day about a person who harmed another human being because they were suffering from a mental disorder. Mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health. It has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. Both physical and mental health affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside (  By being able to help identify these children early and provide them with the treatment needed, the children will benefit as they continue through school and as adults. An Early childhood educator needs to be informed of the symptoms of mental disorders in children. 


Why is it relevant?

            The American Psychological Association estimates approximately 15 million children in the United States can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder (Ahmann, E, 2013 p4). I believe with numbers like these it is very important that we educate parents, early childhood educators and teachers.

            In addition, twenty one percent of children between the ages of nine years to seventeen years old have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment (Ahmann,E 2013. P4).

            As the numbers of children who are being affected by mental disorders continue to raise it is important for early childhood educators to be inform about some of the disorders and the symptoms. Children and teens can develop the same mental health disorders and conditions as adults, but their symptoms may be different or hard to identify (  Many early childhood educators spend more than eight hours a day with the children in their classroom. When early childhood educators have the knowledge of the symptoms of mental disorders they could help the parents by directing them in the direction to receive a proper diagnosis.

Why do you believe it is important? 

             As an early childhood educator, I have experience many situation with children who have exhibited behaviors that I believed the child was just misbehaving. After my research on this topic, I now believe these children may have been displaying symptoms of a mental disorder. I believe if I would have had the knowledge of this information, I could have help the parents in getting help for their child as soon as possible. I am a true believer that the sooner we intervene the better for the child as well as the family. As early childhood educators work with children, the behavior is an important aspect of learning. In order for a child to learn he/she must be able to focus. If the child has a behavior problem, it will interfere with the child’s learning. Behavior issue not only affect the child it also affects the entire classroom. 

             Parents send their children to school to learn, children are being prevented from learning when other children are interrupting the classroom. It is important to identify these children early and provide them with the services needed to help them succeed. When children with behavior issues receive the services needed, this helps them and the other children in the classroom.

How does the topic affect child growth and development?

Mental disorders affect all areas of a child’s growth and development:

  • Social Emotions Development-The child may feel he/she has no friends, or that no one in the class likes him/her. This would affect how he/she interacts with other children and adults in the classroom. A lack of control and high negative emotionality in children as young as three to five years of age have been found to predict later delinquency and even adult criminal convictions (Levine & Munsch, 2014).

  • Language Development- communicating skills could also be affected, because the child may have problems communicating his/her needs or wants. The child could have difficulty handling his/her daily activities whether at school or at home. Children’s biological readiness to learn language and their experiences with language in their environment come together to bring about language development (Levine & Munsch, 2014).

  • Physical Development- The child may not want to participate in the daily activities, such as art activities or outdoor play. This could cause other problems for children such as obesity, eating disorders, and malnourishment (Levine & Munsch, 2014).

  • Cognitive Development-The child might have difficulty participating in group activities, may struggle with processing the information provided by the teacher (Levine & Munsch).


Summary of Research

What did you find out?

            There are many different mental disorders which could affect young children. They can cause ongoing, severe symptoms that affect how child feels, thinks, acts, and handles daily activities, such as going to school, sleeping, or eating. It is important to know the signs and seek help if needed ( Diagnosing mental illness in children can be difficult because young children often have trouble expressing their feelings, and normal development varies from child to child ( The symptoms of mental illness are different for each condition. These are some of the mental disorder and the symptoms which can affect young children:

  • Schizophrenia-Young children in the process of developing schizophrenia (five years old or younger) often have poor motor skills, slow social cognitive processing, a sociality, aggression, other transient neurodevelopmental lags, and slowed skeletal growth rather than classical DSM-IV symptoms (Taylor, E. 1989).

  • Conduct disorder-children who show repetitive and persistent patterns of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate social norms or rules are violated (Levine & Munsch 2014).

  • ADHD-  This condition typically includes symptoms in three categories: difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. Some children with ADHD have symptoms in these categories, while others may have symptoms in only one (

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)- Autism spectrum disorder is a serious developmental disorder that appears in early childhood-usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, ASD always affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others(

  • Attachment Disorder also known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD);


There are two types of reactive attachment disorder:


The first is -the child does not seem able to form any attachment. Symptoms include being withdrawn, being hyper-vigilant (that is, always looking for threats in the environment), or showing contradictory responses to possible attachment figures (like the behavior seen in children with a disorganized/disoriented attachment).


The second is -the child’s reaction is the same with a stranger as it is with a well-known. The child does not form any type of relationship with anyone (Levine, L. E & Munsch, J.(2014).

  • Separation anxiety disorder-children with this disorder refuse to leave a person whom they have form an attachment with, for the reason of being fearful that something bad may happen to this person (Lewinsohn et al.2008).

  • Oppositional Defiant disorder-A recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least six months. This could include frequent temper tantrums, argumentativeness with adults, refusal to comply with adult request, spiteful or vindictive behavior, aggressiveness toward peers, and difficulty maintaining friendships (Levine, L.E & Munsch, J.  2014).



Your personal evaluation of the data you gathered from the 7 different sources.


            I had no idea mental illness could affect children as young as preschoolers. Now as I think back, there are many children who were in my classroom in the past who may have been exhibiting symptoms of some sort of mental disorder. Not realizing that it could be possible. There are so many mental disorders that could affect young children and there are not enough programs to help identify these disorders in young children ( 


            Child and family social workers have an important role in the identification, treatment, and case management of children with serious mental illness (Taylor, E. p329). Even though child and family social workers play an important role in identify a child with mental disorder, I believe that early childhood educators who are educated in mental disorders could also help with early intervention.

What are your new insights about the topic studied?

             As I learn that there are so many children being affected with mental disorders and not being diagnose until later in life. Early childhood educators need to be provided with classroom behavior management training, and educated on mental disorders in young children. Parents who have children who have been diagnose with a mental illness need to receive training on how to work with their child. Diagnosing mental illness in children can be difficult because young children often have trouble expressing their feelings, and normal development varies from child to child (  I have been an early childhood educator for over twenty years and have an associated degree in early childhood. This is the first time I have learned that young children can be affected by a mental disorder. With this knowledge, I am know seeing the children in my classroom in a different manner.

            Since there is no single system in the United States that identifies and treats children with mental disorders ( it is important that individuals involved in a child’s life need to be aware of mental disorders, the symptoms and how mental disorders affect a child’s life.

What new questions do you have?

             Is there any professional training on mental disorders for people who work with children which range from the age of preschool to young adults? How could an early childhood educator help children with mental disorder in a classroom setting? Is there a training where teachers and parents can participate together to help the child in their classroom?

What are some of the recommendations that you can present?

            The National Research Council and Institute of medicine (Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: progress and possibilities, 2009) that gathered findings from previous studies, it estimated that thirteen to twenty percent of children living in the United States (up to 1out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder each year and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders.  As an early childhood educator and learning about how many children are affected by a mental disorder at a young age I recommend that anyone who is involve with children, whether it is a parent, early childhood educator, counselor, a teacher, they all need to be inform of the mental disorders that affect children and learn about the symptoms of these disorders. All the people involve need to understand how important it is to learn about mental disorders in young children. By using these recommendations we can bring the numbers down on children being affect by mental disorders.


Ahmann, E. (2013) Making Meaning when a child has a mental illness: Four mother share their experiences. Pediatric nursing, 202.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) Basics Children’s Mental Health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) Children’s Mental Health Report


Cuellar, Alison (2015) Preventing and Treating child Mental Health Problems


Levine, L.E & Munsch, J. (2014) Child Development: An Active Learning Approach

Lewinsohn, P.M (2008) Separation Anxiety disorder in childhood as a risk factor for future mental illness. American academy of child and adolescent psychiatry, 548.

Mayo Clinic (2015) Children’s Health.

Available depth/mental-illness-in-child/art-20046577.

National Institute of Mental Health (2016) Child and Adolescent Mental Health.


Taylor, E.H (1998) Advance in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Children with Serious Mental Illness. School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL

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