Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health

Importance

The Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) field has grown out of the recognition that early childhood is the opportune time to promote cognitive, social, and emotional health and prevent or intervene early in mental health challenges. IECMH has been defined as "the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years of age to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn - all in the context of family, community, and culture."1 Early childhood is a critical time for brain development, setting the stage for cognitive, social, and emotional development throughout childhood. The development of infants and young children is intertwined thoroughly with the quality of the caregiving relationships in their lives. There are a variety of well-known risk factors that can negatively impact these relationships and ultimately children’s social and emotional development, including prematurity and low birth weight, genetic disorders, exposure to substances, and exposure to violence, abuse, or chronic stress and adversity. Many mental health professionals lack exposure to IECMH or training in the unique competencies needed to identify mental health problems in young children; assess the biological, environmental, and developmental factors at play; develop and implement a service plan that incorporates evidence-based treatment approaches; or collaborate with early childhood systems. While research has shown the effectiveness of addressing mental health challenges early, many families will not receive any intervention until mental health problems worsen.

Overview of our Work

The South Southwest MHTTC will be working to develop several tools and resources to support professionals working with young children. A series of online learning modules is under development to support licensed mental health providers wanting to learn and expand their skills for working with young children and their families.

The MHTTC is also supporting early childhood caregivers in the use of evidence-based screening tools to identify social emotional challenges and has created a learning collaborative to launch the inclusion of the Incredible Years parenting program within the public mental health system. Staff are also collaborating with stakeholders in Texas to create a consensus-based definition and core competencies for early childhood mental health consultation, setting the stage for the development of additional training resources.

Key Resources


1 Ahlers, T., Cohen, J., Duer, J., Oser, C., Stark, D., & Usry, L. (2017). The Basics of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: A Briefing Paper. First Three Years. Available at https://www.zerotothree.org/document/936