Nicole Simonson

During this extremely unique and challenging year, I have had the privilege of interning with Strategies for Children through my graduate program in Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I am also an elementary school social worker as well as a mother of two young boys, one of whom is in preschool. I came to this internship with a level of frustration and a gnawing need to examine the systemic barriers that block the children I work with from accessing timely and appropriate behavioral health services. Throughout my career as a social worker, I have worked my way backwards in a sense from helping the most severely mentally ill adolescents in a residential program to ultimately seeking work that focuses on a model of prevention for young children.

Enter Strategies for Children.

My internship project for the year has been to examine the landscape of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) programs in Massachusetts. For this project, I interviewed various stakeholders who encounter IECMH from a variety of angles. To those who were so generous with their time for this project, I thank you. 

I spoke to experts who spanned the gamut, including early childhood education and care providers, clinicians in the field, state employees who manage programs supporting this work, and researchers. These conversations filled me with a sense of hope because there is so much powerful work happening in this state. Some examples include the efforts of the Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health (MASSAIMH) to provide pathways for competencies and endorsement of those who work with young children, including the early education and care workforce. There are efforts to provide programmatic supports so that early educators can address the increasing mental health needs of the children they serve. Among these programs are The Pyramid Model, City Connects based at Boston College, and programs funded by the Mental Health Consultation Grant. There are also numerous coalitions (e.g. The Children’s Mental Health Campaign) and state agencies working to increase state funding, improve access to services, and develop both the clinical and early education workforce.

While attention to children’s mental health has come a long way in recent years, there is also room for improvement. One theme that was consistent across interviews is that the early education and care workforce needs support to do the work that we know protects children’s mental health. Infant and young children’s mental health develops in the context of relationships with caregivers. If caregivers are not healthy, they cannot fully give children what they need. 

This past year, the pandemic has been brutal for the early education and care industry, and it would not be an exaggeration to say many in the field are experiencing secondary traumatic stress, if not first-hand PTSD due to a variety of pandemic-related factors. There are articles upon articles discussing the ways in which the pandemic has exposed the broken system of child care in this country, which is wrought with systemic racism and sexism. Most childcare providers are women, and a significant percentage of these women qualify for social welfare benefits due to wages that fall below the federal poverty line.

During their days, many early education and care providers are often expected to wear multiple hats and meet the needs of children whose behavior can grow more severe every year because they don’t have the proper mental health supports. While the goal of eliminating practices such as preschool suspension and expulsion is important, achieving this goal must come with the provision of adequate funding, staffing, and professional development as well as access to outside to community supports. Special attention must be paid to family-based providers who are often forgotten in the mix of funding and programmatic support, even though they provide an essential and often preferred service for so many families. 

To increase awareness of resources for supporting infant and early childhood mental health, I have created resource briefs for advocates and providers. Please share this information with your networks.

As I mentioned, I am thrilled that there is so much work happening in Massachusetts to support our youngest children. Let’s provide the proper foundation for that work by holistically supporting the early education and care workforce. Our future depends on it.