Positive Psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman talks about wellbeing and flourishing being the result of a number of elements, including experiencing Positive feelings/emotions, Engagement in something (also known as “flow”), good Relationships with others, Meaning, and Achievement (PERMA).
Seligman’s well-being analysis applies for everyone and anyone, regardless of ability or disability. For many people, the pursuit of good mental health and well-being takes a back seat to other pursuits, such as getting fit, getting good grades, landing the big money job, owning the right kind of car, etc. For children and youth, and especially for children and youth who are seen as “falling behind”, focusing on mental health goals isn’t often at the forefront.
We know, however, that the executive functions in our brains work best when we are not stressed, anxious, or depressed. We learn best when we are positively engaged and motivated, so putting mental health in forefront and prioritizing the PERMA elements, makes sense both from the perspective of increasing cognitive skills and increasing quality of life. It is a question of what comes first. By prioritizing wellbeing now, rather than sacrificing wellbeing now so that we may be better off in the future, we will actually be better off the in the future anyhow. Poor mental health does not breed success. And if there is success at the expense of well-being, perhaps this should make us question our concept of success. If a child learned to tie his shoes at the expense of a stomach ache and tears, then maybe it would have been better to take it slower. Although he now can tie his shoes independently, and this is indeed an important skill to have, he may be resistant to learning other new skills because of the pressure to succeed and memory of the shoe tying lessons.
These points are of course relevant for everyone, but the pressure on children and youth with intellectual disabilities is often intensified by well-meaning concern that extra hard work is required. While it may be true that it takes child A longer to acquire a particular skill than child B, it is worth thinking about weighing the benefits of having a skill mastered now, vs the benefits of building a positive and engaged approach to learning in general. It is also worth considering that regardless of movement toward a goal, there is value in positive mental health in the moment. Life is, after all, just a series of now moments.