Continuum of Care: About Early Childhood Mental Health
Early Childhood Mental Health refers to the healthy social and emotional development of young children. It also refers to the mental health difficulties and disorders experienced by very young children. Services that address the mental health needs of young children exist along a continuum of increasing support and range from promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment.
Promotion services address general audiences of parents, caregivers of young children, and other community providers. Services promote awareness and understanding of healthy social emotional development. They build resilience at community, program and individual levels, and encourage supportive environments. Promotion services may include handing out educational resources, trainings, program enhancement, etc.
Examples: Distribution of social and emotional resources; enhancing a childcare program’s social and emotional environment (building staff capacity, trainings, etc.)
Prevention services reach out to programs and individuals or families that are experiencing stress. This stress can impact the young children in their care and place them at risk of developing social and emotional or mental health problems. Services seek to prevent this by providing resources and support to reduce risk factors and build resiliency. Prevention services may include general screening of several children and strategies that address the needs of more than one child or of whole environments.
Examples: Community or program stress may include the need for additional supports to center and staff due to staff stress or conflict, poverty, multiple at-risk children, community tragedy, etc.
Examples: Family stress may include a new sibling, transitioning to a new home or school, parent job loss, parent separation, community risk factors such as poverty, loss, etc.
Early Intervention services focus on individual children and their caregivers. The services look to build the capacity of their caregivers to reduce problem behaviors and mental health symptoms a child may be experiencing. Interventions include specialized screening and hands on strategies to meet the specific needs of one child or family. Referrals for more intensive services such as outpatient treatment may be made if the early intervention strategies do not provide enough support to meet a child’s more intensive needs.
Examples: Child asked to leave a childcare setting due to behavior; concerning behaviors such as hitting, biting, impulsivity, poor social skills, etc.; emotions such as anxiety, anger issues, difficulty settling down or with transitions; high activity level, etc.
Treatment services are designed to address mental health problems that a child may be suffering or to reduce the impact of a mental health disorder. Treatment can include assessment/evaluation, diagnosis, and therapy. If needed, more intensive services are available to include more than one treatment type and are often accompanied by a care coordinator.
Examples: A major life stressor such as the loss of a parent; symptoms that may be intense and lasting over several weeks, such as kicking, hyperactivity, difficulty with emotion regulation, sleep or eating problems; multiple risk factors such as parental depression, poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc.