Infants and toddlers: Never too early to start thinking about mental health

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When it comes to the mental health of young people, we typically think of teenagers given the onset of mental illness often occurs in adolescence. Rarely do we think about mental health of toddlers, or even infants. But the emotional well-being of this age group is being recognized as a precursor to good mental health throughout the lifespan.

The Provincial System Support Program (PSSP) at CAMH is working with local partners to ensure healthy social-emotional development of children from birth to age three.

The intervention, called First Steps to Success in Etobicoke, aims to enhance the skills of service providers who work in child care centres and community-based family services to strengthen their capacity to prevent mental health challenges from emerging in the future.

Experts like Dr. Jean Clinton, Child Psychiatrist and Clinical Professor with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University, have been advocating for earlier prevention and health promotion.

“We know that positive social-emotional development helps the child to form healthy attachments, feel confident in their learning environment, and manage their emotions more effectively,” she said.

Key members of the early childhood professional community in Etobicoke identified infants and toddlers as a vulnerable population in this part of the GTA when specific determinants of health are considered, including low income, single-parent families, newcomers, racialized populations, and low birth weight. The team has met regularly with the goal of identifying a way to strategically strengthen the system’s ability to meet the needs of young children.

As part of the intervention, more than 50 frontline staff from partner organizations in Etobicoke attended a one-day workshop, facilitated by experts from Edmonton’s Getting Ready for Inclusion Today (GRIT) program.

Gameli King feels the training, which focused on relationship skills, cultural sensitivity, and effective communication, will improve her day-to-day work.

“I’ve been working in the field for a long time. This training is really opening my eyes to some new strategies and will help me break out my old patterns,” said the Registered Early Childhood Educator at the Humber Child Development Centre.

Partnering to build an effective workforce

 “At age four to five, children enter the school system. At that point, if they face challenges, the school system is not necessarily well-equipped to respond appropriately,” explained PSSP Regional Implementation Coordinator, Swelen Andari. “We need to be asking ourselves what is happening in the early years and build a system that works upstream.”

PSSP collected baseline information from all eight sites to identify areas of strength and opportunities for skill development. Staff will be paired with a coach, provided by Toronto Public Health and Toronto Children’s Services, to help them apply their new skills to their everyday work.

“This project builds on the capacity of early childhood educators to promote early social-emotional wellness for all children while putting in place targeted interventions for fewer children who need more support,” noted Ms. Andari. “What’s unique about it is that it does so through ongoing on-site support in addition to professional training.”

Angela Golabek is a Manager of Child Health & Development at Toronto Public Health.

“What I’ve appreciated is the leadership that PSSP has shown in driving this process and bringing together key partners that are crucial to the work of fostering children’s social-emotional development,” she said. “Toronto Public Health and Toronto Children’s Services have come together with childcares and family services across Etobicoke to talk strategically about promoting infant and toddler social-emotional wellness in this unique way.”

Members will come together again this spring for the next training component of the intervention, this time with a focus on how to provide more individualized help for the children who need extra support.

To learn more about the project, visit


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