“Infant- early childhood mental health is the developing capacity of the child from birth to three to: experience, regulate, and express emotions; form close and secure interpersonal relationships; and explore the environment and learn- all in the context of family, community, and cultural expectations for young children. Infant- early childhood mental health is synonymous with healthy social and emotional development.” Zero to Three, 2001

Social & Emotional Development

It’s important that anyone who works with the early childhood population have a basic understanding of children’s social emotional development and behavioral health and how critical nurturing relationships with consistent caring adults are key to healthy development.

The Department of Mental Health, through our work with the Coordinating Board for Early Childhood, Early Childhood Mental Health Work Group, is working to support professional development in the areas of infant and early childhood mental health. DMH is currently working to build the capacity of those working with children and their families to support the social and emotional wellness and to prevent behavioral challenges in the future.

Why is social and emotional development so important?

  • In order for children to attain the basic skills that they need such as cooperation, following directions, demonstrating self-control and paying attention, they must have social and emotional skills.
  • Young children’s mental health sets the stage for a child’s functioning across home, school, and community settings
  • Mental health challenges are common among children under the age of six
  • The presence of social, emotional and behavioral challenges compromise young children’s chances for school success and healthy relationships.
  • A child's positive relationship and attachment with trusting and caring adults is the key to successful emotional and social development.
  • Factors that can impair these important attachments and relationships:
    • Premature birth
    • In utero trauma such as exposure to drugs or alcohol
    • Parents’ own attachment patterns
    • Adolescent motherhood
    • Postpartum depression in mother
    • Severe abuse &/or neglect in the 1st year of life
    • Multiple caregivers
    • Hospitalizations within the 1st year of life
    • Unresolved pain
    • Insensitive parenting

Understanding developmental milestones

  • Children develop at different rates in different areas; however, developmental milestones give us a general idea of what to look for as a child gets older.
  • The four key developmental domains include: cognitive, language, motor, and social and emotional development.
  • Visit the Centers for Disease Control, Act Early Campaign to learn more about social and emotional developmental milestones by age and download check-lists.
  • Learn more about particular social and emotional disorders in young children and screening, assessment, and diagnostic tools.