Mental Health

Early childhood mental health is a child's (birth to 5 years) growing ability to experience, regulate, and express emotions. They learn to develop close, secure relationships with peers and caring adults. Children begin to explore and learn from their surroundings, pay attention, and follow directions. Early childhood mental health is the same as social-emotional development. Head Start and Early Head Start programs partner with local professionals and other programs to ensure children, families, and staff have access to prevention and intervention services.

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Promoting Social Emotional Development

A child's security, happiness, and health begin at birth. Nurturing and caring relationships form the foundation for positive mental health. A supportive environment and intentional supports by trained caring adults are key for positive social-emotional development. Explore the following resources to learn more about how to help children and families with this important topic.

Screening and Assessment

Head Start requires that children's social and emotional development is screened and assessed within 45 days of the start of the program year. Identifying children's strengths and challenges is the first step to providing an individualized program to support positive behavior. Health managers and other program staff may use the following resources to better understand social-emotional screening and assessment strategies.

Challenging Behaviors and Child Mental Health Concerns

Challenging behaviors may include hitting, scratching, screaming, taking toys away from others, and failing to make eye contact. Finding the right strategies to support the extremely shy child who does not know how to enter a group and play or who elects not to speak to anyone at all can also be a challenge. Staff and parents must be aware of these behaviors and find ways to help children successfully interact with peers and adults. Review the following resources to learn more about child mental health concerns and challenging behaviors.


Education Activities

New staff and families often have a negative view of the term mental health. Head Start programs are charged with the responsibility of providing education activities that help them understand the wellness approach to mental health. Programs also promote positive social interactions and self-esteem in the context of the child's development.

Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation

In recent years, there has been growing concern among many in the early care and education (ECE) community that increasing numbers of very young children are manifesting behavior problems severe enough to warrant their removal from their preschool programs. Early childhood mental health consultation (ECMHC) is emerging as an effective strategy for addressing these challenging behaviors and supporting young children's social-emotional development in ECE settings. The tools and resources in this section may be used as a guide for program staff in designing and implementing effective mental health services for families.

Adult Mental Health

Head Start and Early Head Start programs recognize the importance of nurturing both parents and other adults in the families we serve, as well as the caregivers who support at-risk families with young children. Identifying the needs of staff and parents, building strong organizations with systems and policies that support an emotionally healthy environment, and implementing strategies that provide ongoing nurturing experiences will help promote mental well-being. Explore the following links to find resources and tools that offer supportive strategies designed to help caregivers deliver Head Start and Early Head Start services in meaningful and enjoyable ways.

Policies and Procedures

Programs are required to develop, implement, evaluate, and revise policies and procedures that ensure comprehensive mental health services are provided for children, families, and staff. The following resources are designed to assist in understanding and meeting those requirements.

Last Reviewed: February 2014

Last Updated: September 3, 2015