Early Childhood Education

Mental Health


Mental health is a broad concept related to fundamental principles of psychological, social, and emotional development as they support positive child development. Principles of positive mental health underlie healthy development in all areas of early childhood development and are crucial to overall child well-being.

Likewise, when there is a problem associated with an area related to mental health, child well-being may be jeopardized. Children who have particular special needs may be especially vulnerable to mental health problems because of the nature of their developmental needs. In other words, a child’s developmental pattern may lead to future mental health problems if there is not effective early intervention. At the same time, the context of a child’s development may cause mental health problems, even when the child does not have particular special developmental needs. For example, a healthy child born to a parent with severe depression may develop particular special needs later in childhood if there is not effective intervention for the infant-parent pair.

The term “mental health” is often used in association with early childhood to refer to the social and emotional well-being of infants, toddlers, and young children. Although the term “infant mental health” is commonly used among early childhood professionals, the concept relates to principles of child development beyond infancy.

As a field of study, infant or early childhood mental health is a multidisciplinary field made up of clinicians and practitioners from a broad cross-section of the early childhood field, such as health care practitioners, psychologists, researchers, early childhood educators, and related service providers (e.g., speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and social workers). Although mental health services has a connotation of pathology based on the nature, history, and stigma of mental health, the field of infant or early childhood mental health is one that focuses on the prevention of mental health problems.

The field of infant mental health is relatively new, and its beginning is often identified with the work of Selma Fraiberg (1975) and her psychoanalytic work with impaired mother-infant relationships. Since that time, there has been growing recognition of the importance of healthy relationships and social interactions to support healthy brain development and, therefore, overall development for children. Some key organizations that support the development of mental health resources, research, and practice include the following:

• Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)

• National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

• National Center for Children in Poverty

• National Mental Health Association

• World Association for Infant Mental Health

• Zero to Three

Further Readings: Fraiberg, S., E. Adelson, and V. Shapiro (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of American Academy of Child Psychology, 14(13), 387-421.

Web Sites: Children s Defense Fund Child Welfare and Mental Health Division, http://www.childrensdefense.org/childwelfare/default.aspx; National Association for the Education of Young Children,http://www.naeyc.org/; National Center for Children in Poverty, http://www.nccp.org/index.html; World Association for Infant Mental Health, http://www.njaimh.org/world_assoc.htm ZERO TO THREE—Infant Mental Health Resource Center, http://www.zerotothree.org/imh/.

Patrice Hallock