Op-Ed: Caring professionals — the key to promoting children’s mental health

Neuroscience provides significant insight into how a baby’s brain develops and the importance of social-emotional development (also referred to as infant mental health) in this process.

Infant and early childhood mental health hinges on a child’s relationship with a caring and nurturing adult beginning at birth and sets the stage for a child’s lifelong cognitive, social, emotional and health outcomes. Successfully cultivating this attachment would prevent so many other ills that follow in its absence.

Last month the Connecticut Mirror ran a four-part “Starting Early” series on childhood trauma by Arielle Levin Becker. The series offered an in-depth look at childhood trauma, neglect and chronic stress, as well as Connecticut initiatives to help young children and families overcome significant adversity and prevent deeper problems from developing later on.

Op-ed submit bugBecker noted that secure attachments for infants and toddlers and their caregivers promote optimal social-emotional development and serve as a buffer to toxic stress. These attachments can mitigate the negative consequences often associated with young children’s exposure to trauma, poverty, violence and other risk factors.

All professionals in the range of settings that provide care for young children are in the unique position to help families develop stable, nurturing relationships, promote social-emotional development and help families identify concerns early and to make connections to intervention services when necessary.

chdi impactCollectively considered the infant mental health workforce, this includes childcare providers, pediatricians, home visitors, occupational and speech therapists and mental health professionals. Among these professionals there is a great need and strong desire for training in how to best promote social-emotional development, recognize when there are concerns as early as possible and connect families to supports and services.

Unfortunately in Connecticut and nationally, most pre-professional education and training programs lack courses related to infant and toddler mental health.

A new IMPACT report from the Child Health and Development Institute (CHDI) entitled: The Infant Mental Health Workforce: Key to Promoting the Healthy Social and Emotional Development of Children, calls for the development of a statewide system to ensure professionals working with infants, toddlers and their families are skilled in promoting social-emotional development, preventing the negative effects of toxic stress and providing appropriate services and supports when needed. The IMPACT addresses:

  • Research on infant mental health and early brain development
  • Current gaps in the education and training of Connecticut’s infant mental health workforce
  • Local and national examples of workforce development approaches
  • Strategies and recommendations to ensure a competent infant mental health workforce

Connecticut is making progress on building a skilled infant mental health workforce. The Connecticut Association for Infant Mental Health (CT-AIMH) adapted a system of infant mental health training and credentialing from Michigan AIMH. Fifty-three Connecticut professionals have earned or are in the process of earning the CT-AIMH Endorsement®.

In addition, CT-AIMH has provided training in infant mental health for approximately 500 child care providers, home visitors, child welfare workers, mental health clinicians, occupational and speech therapists and health providers in Connecticut through partnerships with CHDI, Early Head Start, the Office of Early Childhood, the Department of Children and Families, Birth to Three and Elm City LAUNCH.

Similar to legislation passed in 2013 (P.A. 13-178, Section 2), the state legislature is once again considering a bill directing the Office of Early Childhood to provide professional development training to pediatricians and child care providers to help prevent and identify mental, emotional and behavioral health issues in children by utilizing the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Competencies or a similar model. Training professionals and parents is also a key part of the Connecticut Children’s Behavioral Health Plan submitted by the Department of Children and Families to the Legislature last October.

This is a strong start, but we must continue to support those working with our youngest and most vulnerable children to help change the trajectory of their lives. Recommendations in the report include:

  • Requiring infant mental health training for relevant professionals working with young children and their families;
  • Integrating infant mental health training into higher education and professional development courses;
  • Ensuring public sector programs serving the most vulnerable young children and their families have access to highly trained specialists in infant and early childhood mental health;
  • Increasing support for reflective supervision – a key ingredient for effective work in the infant-family field.

Judith Meyers is a psychologist and president and CEO of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut

Visit www.chdi.org to download the IMPACT or to read more about CHDI’s work related to infant mental health. Parents and caregivers can learn more about infant mental health at www.kidsmentalhealthinfo.com.

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