Infant mental health is about relationships. Babies and young children are engaged in rapid cognitive and physical development, and it all happens within their relationships with their caregivers. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (ECMHC) is a program designed to enhance teacher relationships with children they care for and to connect children and families to a safety net of resources when they need help.
The Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation program began in 2007 to serve childcare centers participating in the statewide Quality Start Quality Rating and Improvement System.
Childcare centers who participate in the program are provided with a mental health consultant who offers a variety of services. The consultant partners with the childcare center for six months visiting about twice a month for a total of 10-12 visits.
“In that time, we provide classes for teachers; we work alongside teachers in classrooms to observe and reflect, then jointly plan classroom changes; we model techniques and strategies; and we consult with center directors about center goals,” says Sharon M. Gancarz-Davies, LCSW, an Infant Mental Health Specialist that runs ECMHC for Children's Bureau of New Orleans.
In certain cases, the consultant also provides parent workshops, meets individually with parents on interventions as needed, and makes referrals to community resources to address child and family needs.
High Impact, High Reward
Indirectly through the teachers and centers who continue to serve children for years, the ECMHC program has a very broad reach.
“This program is amazing because it allows us to support teachers and parents as they strive to help very young children develop into smart, happy, safe people. The skills and knowledge of a trained mental health clinician gives them more tools to reach their goals,” say Gancarz-Davies.
“This program also gives us the opportunity to reach a large number of families and impact multiple systems. The family environment remains essential for children, and children spend a lot of time with their child care providers, so this kind of program can make a real difference.”
Many children spend up to 8 to 10 hours per day in childcare centers, so the interactions with these caregivers are critical to their healthy development.
Evaluation of the model established by Tulane University for the program has established that the services measurably improve the classroom environment and teacher relationships with children.
The ECMHC program also positively impacts the lives of young children. For example, one pre-school aged child was cooperative but withdrawn at school. The mother, however, reported that she was very aggressive at home to the point of being a danger to herself and others using knives and setting fires.
The center arranged for her mother to meet with the mental health consultant at the center. After listening to the mother’s concerns and discussing her behavior and development, the consultant supported the mother in calling in some counseling options for her daughter. At this point, having spent time building some trust with the parent, the mental health consultant asked the mother if she felt safe at home. It was then that the mother courageously admitted that her partner had been violent with her to the point of bruising and injuring her. The mental health consultant supported her in calling the Family Justice Center to help her further reflect on her situation and the steps she wanted to take to ensure her safety and that of her child. Some months later she removed her child from the center and went to live with family in another state. She called the center after she was settled and reported that her daughter's behavior was much more manageable and she seemed happy.
In this case and others like it, the mental health consultant brings knowledge of community resources, knowledge of the possible meanings behind children's behaviors, experience in asking difficult questions, and hope that change is possible.
“This center had love and concern for the child and had built a positive relationship with the parent. The parent used these resources to create a safer home for her family. That is what this program is all about.”