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Core Concepts of Mental Health

Early childhood mental health is the same as social and emotional well-being. It is a child’s developing capacity to express and regulate emotions, form trusting relationships, explore, and learn—all in the cultural context of family and community. The mental health of children and the adults that care for them is essential for school readiness.

When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences. The early years are the most active period for establishing healthy brain development. Children from birth to three years of age live directly through their senses creating critical an impactful environment for infants and toddlers.  

Responsive nurturing interaction shapes early infant/toddler brain development and builds connections that allow the development of lifelong skills like problem-solving, communication, self-control, and relationship building creating survival skills and the ability to thrive within family and community. 


Policies can provide parents with guidance, resources, services, and support that help them nurture their babies and set them up for a healthy life.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health means that young children are growing in their ability to:

  • understand and share feelings 

  • have close and positive relationships

  • explore and learn

Why is it important?

Having Positive Mental Health Makes It Easier for Children to:

  • Have close relationships with family and friends

  • Do well in school

  • Learn new things

  • Solve tough problems

  • Develop patience or not give up

  • Focus on a task

  • Not give up

When Young Children are Worried, Sad, or Angry, It Can be Hard to:


  • Make friends 

  • Follow directions 

  • Express feelings or wishes

  • Follow simple directions

  • Pay attention in class

  • Solve problems in positive ways

  • Do well in school 

From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts

Key Findings From the Report

Published: Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University 

A Three-part video series titled "Three Core Concepts in Early Development" from the Center and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The series depicts how advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics now give us a much better understanding of how early experiences are built into our bodies and brains, for better or for worse.

Early Childhood Mental Health

Children's Lifetime is committed to promoting the mental health (social and emotional well-being) of young children and their families. Children's Lifetime recognizes that children who are ready for school are children with strong social and emotional skills. Children’s caregivers at home and in the program benefit from resources that support their own mental health and in turn help to support the health and well-being of children in their care.

The science of child development shows that the foundation for sound mental health is built early in life, as early experiences—which include children’s relationships with parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, and peers— shape the architecture of the developing brain. Watch these informed videos below.

Foundations of School Readiness: Social &
Emotional Development
Social &

For infants and toddlers, social and emotional development is “the developing capacity to experience and regulate emotions, form secure relationships, and explore and learn—all in the context of the child’s family, community, and cultural background.”


To develop social and emotional skills, babies need adults who are tuned in to them and respond to them appropriately. These attuned relationships are sometimes referred to as serve and return, because the baby “serves” by making a sound, gesture, or expression, and the adult “returns” with a response.iv


As we grow to understand more about how children learn, we find research continually demonstrating that “a secure, flexible, and trusting relationship with a primary caregiver prepares infants and toddlers for academic and social competence” throughout their lives.v Early Head Start staff members who work directly with children and families are in unique positions to establish such attuned relationships and support children’s social and emotional development.

Learn about  Responsive Care giving as an  Effective Practice to Support Children’s Social and Emotional Development aEarly Learning Tools & Resources

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