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Ringing Bells, Punishment, and Reinforcement: A Focus on How to Improve Children’s Mental Health

For parents, caregivers, and educators, discussing children’s mental health has been a taboo topic for years. Yet, the conversation around the importance of identifying mental health disorders in children has changed recently. Unfortunately, up to 20 percent of children in the US suffer from a mental disorder at a cost of $247 billion annually, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, understanding more about how to improve children’s mental health can help to reduce this prevalence. 

Sensory overload and children’s mental health 

The key to understanding how differing factors impact mental health relies on how the mind responds to stimuli, which is similar to how children with autism fail to respond appropriately to milestones. Loud, sudden stimuli may result in an unexplained, fearful response. Conversely, less-dramatic, soothing stimuli can have a calming effect on children’s mental processes. 

For example, fire alarms are comparable to school bells. The surprising sound of a bell may signal an immediate release of adrenaline in the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, knowing a bell is coming to “let class out” may invoke apprehension—the precursor to full-blown anxiety—in children. 

Obviously, ringing bells in school is not going away any time soon. However, we can start a dialogue about how to improve children’s mental health by removing unnecessary stimuli. After all, a ringing bell does not necessarily mean the instructor will let the children leave immediately. Educators have the power to release students, not an omnipotent bell. 

Punishment vs. positive reinforcement 

Society has gotten into a habit of defining punishment as the only means of correcting behavior. Although partially true, punishment does not really give children a reason to correct behavior other than to avoid negative consequences. Positive reinforcement, however, encourages children to avoid problematic behavior by rewarding appropriate actions, eliminating the need for punishment. 

For example, a ringing school bell may signal a reward of getting to go home for some children. For those who have misbehaved, a ringing bell signals the beginning of detention or other punishment. Alternatively, the ringing bell may signal the onset of depressive symptoms in children who have less than ideal home conditions. Either way, the bell conditions children to respond to a simple situation with anxiety. 

These examples do not explain why a child may not be engaging appropriately with peers. Children may not be responding appropriately because of the following factors: 

  • The environment is confusing. 
  • The child’s best means of learning—such as through audible, visual, or combined media—is not being fully utilized. 
  • Other children are creating a hostile environment. 
  • Distracting media is being played. 
  • Children’s potential developmental or other mental health problems go unnoticed by school officials. 

Each of these factors increases the likelihood of suffering from depression, anxiety, or other behavioral health disorders. For children who already have one or more of these disorders, the results can be severe. This goes back to the importance of identifying mental health disorders early in childhood. As a result, parents, caregivers, and authoritative figures can create a learning-conducive, positive environment to help improve children’s mental health. 

Creating positive environments to improve children’s mental health 

The idea of creating punishment-free, learning-conducive environments seems unrealistic. Yet, creating these environments simply takes advantage of how children learn without focusing on negative actions associated with discipline. The focus of this model relies on recognizing when children are becoming agitated and intervening. 

For example, a caregiver notices fidgeting in children and redirects the focus by asking them to stand for a moment and stretch. This provides a “reset” to the mind and body. Additionally, other ways to improve children’s mental health through environmental changes include: 

  • Create an organized structure. Structure gives children a way to hold themselves and others accountable. This may include the use of calendars, routines, and schedules. 
  • Enact change with rationale. A child’s age does not mean caregivers and educators can make sudden changes without informing children why. This is the most important aspect of using positive reinforcement in a positive environment. Educators need to explain how proper behavior will be rewarded. 
  • Create a “safe” way for children to regain control. This concept is difficult to implement as it varies heavily from child to child. It can be as simple as allowing children to retire to the “Calm Corner” for 15 seconds. This should not be confused with punishment as it does not imply a negative consequence that resulted from a problem; it is a means of preventing a problem from developing. 
  • Remove distractions and unnecessary stimuli. 
  • Pair a child with the most soothing party. Outside of classroom settings, this concept may be applied by allowing a stressed child to spend more time with a “soothing” parent. In school, a student may fair better when working with friend A, not friend B. 
  • Encourage socialization with peers through friendships and extra-curricular activities. 

Further research is needed

The discussion on how to improve children’s mental health is still in infancy. Though it’s still early days, research is showing how environmental stimuli impact children’s mental health and how changing environments can lessen the impact of childhood mental disorders. 

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