This section was developed specifically to assist early care and education providers in preventing and identifying mental, emotional and behavioral health issues in young children, as well as promoting social and emotional development. The sections to the right include videos, information about infant mental health, brain development, the role of early care and education providers in promoting social and emotional development and resources and links to community and national supports.

Understanding infant and early childhood mental health

Infant and early childhood mental health refers to the quality of a child’s first and early relationships and the child’s social and emotional development. When we talk about infant/early childhood mental health we mean a child’s ability to:

  • experience warm and responsive relationships with care givers
  • create relationships with others
  • explore and learn
  • communicate in play
  • express and regulate emotion

Attachment and Early Relationships

The first three years of life set the stage for social-emotional functioning throughout the lifespan. Attachment refers to the ongoing nurturing relationship that a child builds with familiar adults. The caregiver-child relationship is fundamental to shaping brain development, specifically through the interactions that occur between the caregiver and the child. When infants and toddlers have healthy relationships that support attachment, they learn to trust that the world is safe and they have confidence to explore and learn.

Brain Development

We know through scientific research that a child’s early experiences—whether positive or negative —affect the development of his/her brain as well as his/her health (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University). The first three years of a baby’s life is a time of rapid growth and development. At birth, infants have roughly 100 billion brain cells. By age 3, a child’s brain has mostly grown and is making connections and learning about the world (Zero to Three). A baby and toddler needs caring, sensitive adult-child contact to help him/her develop trust, understanding, compassion, kindness and a conscience. We now know that babies’ brains do not develop fully when this warm caregiving is missing. Research has shown that as a child grows, nurturing and warm relationships with parents/caregivers shape his or her self-image and give the child the skills needed to face new challenges.

Social-Emotional Health and Development

Healthy, early social-emotional development exists within the cultural context of family and community. Social-emotional development involves:

  • the capacity to experience, regulate and express emotion;
  • the ability to form close, secure interpersonal relationships; and
  • the ability to explore the environment and learn.

Developing secure relationships with caregivers and other adults is crucial for the development of healthy social and emotional skills in infants and toddlers. It is also essential for developing future relationships and lays the foundation for good mental health.

Role of early care and education providers

Early care and education providers, as well as home visitors, play an important role in the lives of the young children in their care. It is important for a provider to consider the following:

  • What is it like to be this baby or toddler? All behavior has meaning, try and figure out what each baby is trying to tell you.
  • What is it like to be this parent/family? –Remember parents have their own emotional state, handling style, reactions and come with their own histories
  • What is the present relationship with the child and the parent/family? Talk with parents/families about the child’s care, what life is like for them with their baby or toddler
  • Remember not to judge the parent/family.

Meeting children and family’s needs

An important job of an early care and education provider is to provide a safe environment for children and to attend to each child’s basic developmental, emotional and physical needs. Some infants and toddlers respond well to hugs or gentle touches, which are important ways to help children feel more secure and understood. When caregivers offer opportunities for one-on-one personal time with infants and toddlers, they can help children label the emotions they are experiencing and provide an outlet for their feelings.

Sometimes providers have children in their care with special needs (including both children with or without a diagnosis). These providers often work with specialists to meet the needs of these children. Also, many providers may need to make reasonable adjustments in the classroom or child care home to accommodate physical or developmental/emotional needs of the children in their care.

Promoting social-emotional learning and development

Physical Environment: Providers can encourage social and emotional learning by arranging classrooms and home teaching environments. Some tips for room arrangement include:

  • offer stimulating but not overwhelming spaces ready to encourage exploration
  • make sure there are plenty of age-appropriate materials to limit competition for toys (have duplicates of popular toys)
  • design the teaching environment to offer the right amount of interest and level of challenge to meet each child’s individual needs
  • create a quiet space for children to escape “the crowd”


Teaching During Natural Routines: Providers can incorporate social and emotional learning in the daily routines that are established for the children in their care. Talk to children about what is going on during routines such as dressing the child, during meal time, during play, rest time or even during diapering and toileting. Interact with children in ways that engage them in thinking and learning (for example: counting buttons aloud as they are fastened). Be responsive to children’s individual needs (one child may be soothed by a gentle hug, while another is more comfortable with an encouraging smile).

Great Resources to share:
Social and Emotional Tips for Providers Caring for Infants

Social and Emotional Tips for Providers Caring for Toddlers

Tips to Promote Social and Emotional Learning Behaviors:
• Plan “learning opportunities” that are age-appropriate and culturally appropriate
• Plan environments to maximize opportunities for learning through discovery
• Select, place and rotate materials based on your observations of children
• Watch children’s cues and signs of interest- follow their lead
• Ask what the child wants
• Look for ways to expand rather than interrupt spontaneous learning
• Offer soothing, supportive language, appropriate to the child’s age
• Model appropriate social behaviors
• Consider each child’s unique style

Helping families recognize concerns

Early care and education providers play a key role in recognizing that a child may need special help. By using developmental milestone checklists on a routine basis and discussing them with the families you serve, you can help pinpoint specific concerns. You may be asked by the family to conduct a developmental screening if appropriate. Connecting families to the right systems that help address their child’s needs is an essential part of supporting families and building positive relationships. Please see the section called, “Concerns About a Child” and “Communication with Parents and Families” to find out more.

Great Resource:

Reflective practice

As an early care and education provider, young children are consistently relying on you to provide a safe, stimulating, engaging and fun environment. How do you know you are on the right track? Looking closely at your own practices, the learning environment and the interactions you have on a daily basis is called reflection. Reflective practice is an ongoing process of looking at and observing both what is happening and what you are feeling, recording one’s own practices and taking action to make positive changes in the teaching and care environments for young children. Discovering what triggers your own emotions can be helpful in relating to children and in planning your days. Working with someone in a reflective consultation setting is key to understanding your emotional triggers.

Individuals come to their roles as early care and education providers with their own values, beliefs and past experiences. The reflective process begins with taking a close objective look at how you see and define your role and wondering about your own reactions to things that happen in your classroom. A reflection is an account of what occurred, possible reasons why it occurred and what possible changes might be needed. Reflecting on your day can help a provider be more thoughtful, intentional and effective.

“For example: if you are focusing on circle time and notice the engagement level of the children waning, you can look at several things that might affect that activity. After reflecting upon the lack of engagement, you consider the use of a visual prop, incorporating music and movement during circle time, allowing flexibility of movement, changing the physical location in the classroom of where the group time is held or offering an alternate activity for children who have a shorter attention span.”  Source:

Endorsement ® for infant/family professionals

The Connecticut Association for Infant Mental Health (CT-AIMH) offers an Endorsement (IMH-E®) to recognize and document the development of infant and family professionals within an organized system of culturally sensitive, relationship-based, infant mental health learning and work experiences. Endorsement® through CT-AIMH will verify that the provider has attained a level of education as specified, participated in specialized in-service trainings, worked with guidance from mentors or supervisors and acquired knowledge to promote the delivery of high-quality, culturally sensitive, relationship-focused services to infants, toddlers, parents, other caregivers and families.

To learn more about the Endorsement® process, please click here to go the CT-AIMH website, or click here to go directly to the Endorsement® Brochure.

Concerns about a child

As an early care and education provider, you are a valuable resource to parents! You spend the day playing, watching, and caring for children and you already know some of the milestones that a child should reach in their healthy development. You play a key role in recognizing when a child may need special help and can connect families to the right systems that help address those child’s needs. All children are unique, but at some times you may see a child who is not developing as they should.

Consider developmental milestones

From birth to age 5, a child is growing in size as well as playing, moving, speaking and interacting with others. For each age and stage in a young child’s development, there are milestones that each child will reach in their unique way. Early care and education providers should be aware of these milestones and help identify when there might be a concern in how a child learns, plays, speaks or acts. These milestones can help a parent or caregiver find any problems or concerns in their child’s development at an early age. Many groups publish a list of milestones for use such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Developmental Milestones charts and the Zero to Three Organization’s Age-based handouts. You can also share these tools with parents and caregivers.

Training Videos

The following videos and supplemental information were developed by Eastern Connecticut State University, Center for Early Childhood Education and were funded by the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC).

Understanding Challenging Behavior in Young Children

Supplemental Materials

Reflecting on Our Reactions and Responses to Children’s Behavior

Supplemental Materials

To access other organization’s training videos, please click on the links below:

These sections and the videos were funded by a grant from the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC) through the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF).