Social Emotional Competence: Wisconsin Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Competency and Endorsement System


Infant mental health encompasses multiple disciplines and levels of service delivery including promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment. Currently there is not a nationally acknowledged framework detailing required infant mental health competencies for professionals working with infants, young children and their families.

To ensure the high quality of services provided to children and families, a system needs to be in place to qualify and support professionals. One way to create such a system is by establishing an endorsement process.

What is Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health?

Infant and early childhood mental health is the social-emotional development of young children and is formed within the context of the child's relationships. It is a child's ability to experience, regulate and express emotions, to form close and secure interpersonal relationships, and to explore his or her environment and learn.

It involves skills such as self-confidence, curiosity, motivation, persistence and self-control which affect growth, trust and future learning. It is critical that early caregivers know how to promote healthy social and emotional well-being through nurturing and consistent relationships.

Why Care About Social and Emotional Development?

The earliest years lay the foundation for future success in school and beyond. Research confirms that a child's emotional development is the basis for all later development. It sets the stage for relationships and readiness for school.

Children who do not attain basic social and emotional milestones do not do well in school. These children are at a higher risk for learning and behavioral problems and juvenile delinquency.

What is an Endorsement Process?

Endorsement in Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health is a verifiable process that recognizes that knowledge and training among professionals across disciplines. The endorsement is within an organized system of culturally sensitive, relationship-focused learning and work experiences that promote infant mental health.

It is not a license or certification, but instead is an overlay onto person's professional credentials that recognizes achievement of knowledge and training in the area of infant and early childhood mental health. It is process that is not exclusive to any one discipline. It is relevant for child are professionals, home visitors, medical providers, child welfare, mental health clinicians, policymakers, researchers.

WI Alliance for Infant Mental Health Endorsement-Includes information about requirements, reflective supervision, frequently asked questions and a preliminary application.

What is the Value of a Competency-Based System of Endorsement?

Endorsement is valuable in three ways:

  1. Provides a set of competencies for professional development in the infant, early childhood and family field.
  2. Assures people working with infants, young children and families provide culturally sensitive, relationship-based services meeting the standards approved by a recognized professional organization.
  3. Recognizes the importance of continuing education and training and demonstrates commitment by professionals from across systems to provide services promoting infant mental health with a high level of integrity.

Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Within Different Disciplines

Science has illustrated that development is inter-related--that is, intelligence, language, memory, social and emotional skills do not develop in isolation. A young child's learning happens within the context of relationships and the first relationships define the early experiences that shape the development of the brain--the only organ that changes in response to experience after birth.

Given the critical nature of early relationships, it is imperative that all care givers touching the lives of young children have the knowledge of skills to promote healthy development, including social and emotional development. Examples of how infant mental health is a part of various professions are provided below.


Early Care and Education: Center and non-center based care providers have wonderful opportunities to help children gain social and emotional capacities through daily classroom experiences.

Teachers can help children identify strong emotions--such as anger, excitement and sadness--and facilitate the healthy expression of those emotions. Child care providers have multiple occasions to partner with parents in understanding the social and emotional development of their infants and children. They can help promote the child-parent relationship.

Home Visitors: Home visitors promote healthy child growth and family functioning. While home visitors may vary in their focus, outcomes and who they serve, they are rooted in common beliefs that:

  1. learning begins at birth; and
  2. parents play a critical role in their child's health and emotional well-being.

Home visitors can provide relationship-based, parent-child assistance that enhances the capacities of parents and young children and provides parents with information regarding their role in the social and emotional development of their children.

Medical Providers: Primary health care providers can play a unique role in addressing infant mental health needs. These are characteristics of pediatric practice that make primary health clinicians well-suited to address mental health issues in children such as the long-term relationships with children and families.

Providers have an emphasis on development, prevention and early intervention as well as experience working with specialists on behalf of children with special needs, a medical home, and understanding the access issues families may face for mental health services.

Child Welfare: The structure of the child welfare system must ensure a continuum of services, beginning with those that can help prevent abuse and neglect and keep families together. Services to preserve and support families are particularly important for families with infants and toddlers who may need extra support in parenting.

Infants and toddlers in foster care are at risk for mental health disorders. Foster and biological parents can be provided guidance in promoting the child-parent relationship.

Mental Health Clinicians: Infant mental health clinicians provide diagnostic assessments and relationship-based therapeutic intervention that supports the parent-child relationship. Clinicians engage in parent-infant psychotherapy to explore issues (including attachment, separation, and loss) that affect the development and care of the infant and young child.

Infant and early childhood mental health consultation is one of a number of problem-solving and capacity building interventions and treatment. The treatment focus is on improving adults' effectiveness in their interactions with young children. Other common capacity-building interventions include teaching and training, clinical supervision, and parent-infant psychotherapy.

Policy Makers: State policymakers can take steps to improve early childhood mental health and provide a framework for comprehensive early childhood mental health services. Promotion services, aimed at maintaining social and emotional well-being, benefit all young children and their families. A prevention approach is targeted toward children who are at risk of poor developmental outcomes.

Treatment offers targeted and individualized attention to young children and families who already are exhibiting symptoms of mental health disturbances. Policy makers can advocate for funds, practices and programming for effective relationship-based service delivery to children and families.

Researchers: Researchers have found that attending to young children promotes more fully-functioning children, teens and adults. They conduct research that increases the body of knowledge on infant mental health, early development and effective interventions.

Researchers have the capacity to change the public conversation about the importance of nurturing and caring for our infants, children and families.