For program leaders, promoting infant mental health means creating a culture that supports healthy functioning for staff and provides them with relationships within which they can learn from their work, and reflect on its meaning and impact.
The idea of mental health for infants and toddlers encompasses the full spectrum of social/emotional functioning. It ranges from social/emotional wellness—an ability to form satisfying relationships with others, to play, communicate, learn, and experience the full spectrum of human emotions—to the disorders of very early childhood. Mental health is synonymous with healthy social-emotional development. Its practice encompasses promotion (encouraging good mental health), prevention (minimizing risk), and treatment (supporting and guiding the return to a healthy developmental trajectory). Infant mental health develops in the context of family, community, and cultural expectations for very young children.
For program leaders, promoting infant mental health means creating a culture that supports healthy functioning for staff and provides them with relationships within which they can learn from their work, and reflect on its meaning and impact. It also means assisting them develop skills in observation, flexible response, and self awareness. When staff experience such relationships within such an environment, they are better able to support the mental health of the infants, toddlers, and families they serve. Listed below are additional suggestions on how leaders can promote infant mental health in an infant/toddler setting.
Tips for Promoting Infant Mental Health
- Provide staff with supervision that occurs regularly, and is reflective and supportive. Use supervision as an opportunity for on-going learning and exploration.
- Ask questions and wonder with your staff about families’ experiences, reactions and motivations. Encourage staff members to assume the best of the families with whom they work, just as you assume the best of their work. Use these discussions as an opportunity to promote staff and family strengths, and to explore areas for development.
- Wonder together about the development of both child and family. Discuss with staff how both child and family have opportunities for growth and learning.
- Encourage interdisciplinary work within your staff, and among your staff and external consultants.
- Model flexible responses with staff. Individualize your suggestions, interactions, and feedback to each staff member’s needs and temperament.
- Utilize hiring strategies that select for key relationship skills (e.g., empathy, reflection, ability to be family-centered).
- Re-examine job descriptions and performance evaluations to ensure they support relationship-based work and family-centered practice.
- Provide training in observation skills. The ability to observe is crucial to supporting the development of children’s social-emotional skills. Enhanced staff training in this area is an important investment in the program.
- Support the development of cultural competence. Culture is the lens through which all of our interactions and learning takes place. Seek to better understand how culture impacts the staff and family interactions in your program.
- Wonder about the meaning of behavior. What is a staff member trying to tell you through his/her behavior? Encourage them to do the same with families.
- Celebrate the whole child and his/her contribution to your program, including personality, primary and extended family members, and culture.