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Solutions for Addressing Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health

In this blog post, Alli Lowe-Fotos, policy manager, shares several solutions for challenges facing the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health system.

Allison Lowe-Fotos June 3, 2021
  • Policy and Systems
  • Blog

Infant and early childhood mental health (I/ECMH) has long been part of Illinois’ infrastructure and continues to play an integral role in our early childhood systems. In fact, in 2003, the state passed the Children’s Mental Health Act, creating the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership (ICMHP). Additionally, in 2014, the Irving Harris Foundation convened hundreds of public and private partners to create the Illinois Action Plan to Integrate Early Childhood Mental Health into Child- and Family-Serving Systems, Prenatal through Age Five, an effort to sufficiently support the mental health needs of Illinois’ children.

There are a variety of strategies across the continuum of promotion/prevention, intervention and treatment to address I/ECMH, such as tiered systems of support within programs (e.g., Illinois’ Pyramid Model framework), parent/child interaction guidance, developmental screenings, parental mental health screenings, crisis intervention and dyadic therapies.

One strategy that is of huge focus in Illinois is I/ECMH Consultation (I/ECMHC). This multi-level, proactive approach partners multi-disciplinary I/ECMH consultants with those who work with young children and their families to support and enhance children’s social emotional development, health and well-being and to build the capacity of early childhood program staff.

In 2015, the I/ECMHC Initiative was created under the leadership of the ICMHP to pilot the Illinois Model of I/ECMHC in three types of early childhood settings in four communities in Illinois. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago recently released research on the Model, which shows that early childhood providers improved their reflective capacity and classroom climate, and home visitors engaged in more responsive behaviors. The Initiative, now under the leadership of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development in partnership with the IL Network of Childcare Resource and Referral Agencies, aims to promote sustainable professional development, an I/ECMHC database and public awareness.

National research also demonstrates that I/ECMHC reduces expulsions and staff burnout and turnover.

In response to these promising findings, Illinois advocates have advanced legislation, such as 2017’s Public Act 100-105, prohibiting early childhood expulsion and a recent bill spearheaded by the Black Caucus to establish the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultations Act, encouraging the state to increase funding for (and the availability of) I/ECMHC services.

New legislation also requires behavioral health clinicians working with children under age 5 to use a developmentally-appropriate diagnostic assessment and billing system when a diagnosis is needed, including ZERO TO THREE’s Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood (DC: 0-5TM). All licensed child care providers, directors and staff are also required to participate in at least one training every three years that includes the topics of early childhood social emotional learning, infant and early childhood mental health, early childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences.

There is still more work to be done to provide resources and funding that staff, families and communities need to address I/ECMH. No one agency or person can fill all the needs of families and children – therefore, it is critically important that across the community, systems are coordinated so that the broad range of factors, needs and contexts are addressed. The system must be comprehensive, coordinated and integrated and needs to offer supports that reflect the continuum of care needed, from education and prevention to intervention to treatment.


This blog post is last in a series about I/ECMH, published on the heels of Mental Health Awareness Month. 

About the Author

Allison Lowe-Fotos

Allison Lowe-Fotos

Policy Manager, Illinois Policy Team

Allison Lowe-Fotos, MSW, LCSW is a policy manager with Start Early. She works on issues and initiatives of mental health, home visiting, early childhood expulsion, child welfare, families impacted by the criminal justice system and early childhood workforce development.

More About Allison

More From This Series

In this Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health blog series, we explore child, caregiver and community mental health, as well as issues related to equity, disparities and intersectionality.

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