Early Childhood Mental Health

By Shantel Meek, Policy Advisor for Early Childhood DevelopmentGirl in classroom
Administration for Children and Families, DHHS

National Mental Health Awareness Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the social-emotional needs of our youngest children. There is no timeframe more critical for children’s development than the first few years of life; this is especially true for social-emotional development. The earliest relationships children form with parents and caretakers shape their trust in others, their self identity, and the quality of their earliest learning experiences.

The importance of children’s social-emotional health has come into sharp focus in light of the recent tragedies our nation has faced, from Sandy Hook and Super Storm Sandy, to the tornadoes in Oklahoma. While these events were large-scale traumatic events, they are in addition to the numerous stressors millions of children experience on a daily basis.

Though it is impossible to buffer children from all of life’s stressors, making sure they have a strong social and emotional foundation and appropriate supports from adults is critical to ensuring that they will be able to endure catastrophic or traumatic events and “bounce back.” Research has shown that children who have this strong foundation are more resilient and able to handle adversity, and less likely to develop an array of health and mental health problems later in life. A strong social-emotional foundation is shaped from birth, with supportive relationships, positive and age-appropriate discipline, and the nurturing of social and emotional skills. Moreover, regular social-emotional, behavioral, and trauma screenings can help assure that delays or concerns are detected early so that children and families are linked to appropriate services as soon as possible.

As the national debate on improving the state of our education system continues, we must remember that social-emotional skills are not tangential to academic and life outcomes; rather, they are a necessary foundation for academic and relationship success.  Learning is harder if children are distracted by stressors at home; school is less motivating if children do not have friends; making friends is more difficult if children are unable to regulate their emotions; and paying attention in class is extremely difficult if children are dealing with unaddressed trauma. To remain competitive in the ever-evolving world economy, we must accept that from birth, a child’s social and emotional needs must be met and their skills developed before they are expected to learn, excel, and compete in the classroom and later in life, in the workplace. 

The early childhood community plays a unique role in promoting healthy social-emotional development in our youngest children. ACF is dedicated to making sure early childhood professionals have the resources they need to support social-emotional health, address stress and trauma, and when necessary, link children and families to specialists. Relationships: The Heart of Development and Learning, a training module for early childhood consultants, provides an overview of social-emotional health in young children and the role caretakers can play in the development of these critical skills.

In addition, Sesame Street recently released numerous toolkits designed to help families and caregivers appropriately address children's social-emotional health after stressful situations such as natural disasters, divorce, and parent deployment. Check out the Hurricane Kit, Let's Get Ready, You Can Ask, Talk-Listen-Connect, and Here for Each Other: Helping Families After an Emergency. For more information on early childhood social-emotional health, visit the websites below.

In recognition of National Mental Health Awareness Month, we hope you take a moment to learn more about early childhood social-emotional health, foster the skills of the young children in your home or classroom by offering trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate care and education, and shed light on the issue in your local communities.

Learn More

Head Start Mental Health Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

What is Childhood Traumatic Stress?

Understanding Traumatic StressEn Espanol

How Children May React to a Traumatic Event and How to Help

Tips for Finding Help for Trauma

Healthy Social-Emotional Functioning

Be a Hero of Hope

Audio Interview on Nurturing Children’s Emotional Development