The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is pleased to announce the launch of the National Center of Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (CoE), a new $6 million investment to support children’s social emotional development and behavioral health led by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in partnership with the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Administration for Children and Families.
Infant and early childhood mental health consultation is a multi-level preventive intervention that builds the capacity of teachers, home visitors, and families to promote social-emotional development and has demonstrated impacts for improving children’s social skills and adult-child relationships; reducing challenging behaviors, expulsions and suspensions; increasing family-school collaboration; increasing classroom quality; and reducing teacher stress, burnout, and turnover.
Research has also shown that a child's first years of life are critically important for brain development, including the acquisition of social, emotional, and cognitive skills that create a foundation for later school and life success. That is why one of President Obama’s key priorities is ensuring that all children have access to high quality early learning opportunities and supports that promote children’s healthy development, including social-emotional and behavioral health.
Although we know what a difference social-emotional and behavioral health makes in the lives of our children, too many of our nation’s teachers and early learning providers still lack the professional development and supports they need to foster readiness in children they serve. Social and emotional health is among the most pressing training needs of early educators, and the early childhood system is often lacking in its capacity to provide the kind of support that teachers need to help them promote healthy social emotional development and address the behavioral challenges of young children. Lack of sufficient training and support results in higher teacher turnover, and can be linked to poorer child outcomes.
Over the next four years, the Center of Excellence will build strong, sustainable mental health consultation systems across states, cities, and tribal communities across the country through the development of culturally responsive state-of-the-art tools, and through the delivery of training and technical assistance. The new Center of Excellence will provide inclusive and culturally sensitive expertise, including a focus on tribal communities. Work will be steered by a group of experts in the early childhood mental health field, including tribal experts, to ensure that the work is culturally responsive to the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native children and their families. The unique strengths and needs of tribal communities warrant an intentional focus and strong partnership with tribal nations. The Center of Excellence will include attention to racial and ethnic disparities in exclusionary discipline practices, disparities in access to behavioral health services, and will promote tools and trainings that are culturally responsive and relevant, addressing issues of implicit bias, and benefiting all children, their families, and their caregivers.
The need to better support early childhood professionals with access to training and mental health consultation is particularly acute in in remote rural and tribal communities, where the geography, limited resources, and lack of infrastructure can be significant barriers to the attraction, retention, and ongoing professional development of teachers and home visitors. Additionally, we know that infants, toddlers, young children and their families in rural communities have mental health needs that are not currently being met because there is a lack of available, accessible, and affordable services for young children. In fact, estimates show that 1.9 million children with mental health difficulties live in areas where there are minimal to no resources available to meet their needs.
This project closely aligns with the White House Rural Council’s Rural Impact strategy to address child poverty, which is another of the ways the Obama Administration is addressing the needs of vulnerable young children and families by supporting cross-agency, nonprofit, and private sector partnerships to better serve rural and tribal kids and families. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood programs that include a strong focus on children’s social-emotional and behavioral health, is a key piece of this strategy. And this project also aligns with the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Initiative, and the MBK Task Force Report, which recommends building a strong foundation of social-emotional and behavioral health, fostered by warm, enriching, and secure relationships with adults like parents and early learning providers, as an integral component of entering school ready to learn.
Today’s announcement is an important step forward in boosting the quality of early childhood programs and thereby ensuring the healthy social, emotional and behavioral development of young children across the country, including in rural and tribal communities. Though families in rural and tribal communities face a unique set of challenges, they also possess a strong set of assets. The work of the Center of Excellence will build on those assets to improve school readiness, school success, and the well-being of the next generation.
Doug O’Brien is Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs with the White House Domestic Policy Council.