My passion for child behavioral and mental health started in the early 2000’s when there was still widespread stigma on the topic. Even so, the impact that mental health had was never foreign to me. Without the language to describe what I was witnessing; I have watched several people in my life suffer with anxiety and depression. And I always had the sense that if provided with behavioral health support and resources early in life, these individuals might have felt more knowledgeable and empowered to deal with their mental health struggles. Instead, many of them suffered in silence and spent years cycling through the same patterns of behavior. Today so much has changed, and I am grateful to see a shift in the way people are talking about their struggles and the prioritization of mental health intervention and prevention efforts.
According to Zero to Three, Infant and Early Child Mental Health (IECMH) is the developing capacity of a child from birth to 5 years of age to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture. Over the past year, Resilient Georgia has worked to make IECMH a priority across the state of Georgia. In August 2021, they received the Preschool Development Renewal Grant from the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) to implement IECMH initiatives. These initiatives, aimed at Early Care professionals and stakeholders across Georgia, included IECMH Regional Strategy Planning sessions, Community Resiliency Model Trainings, Mindful Self-Compassion Trainings, and the development of a Resiliency Zone guide for Infant and Early Care settings.
I want to take a moment to highlight the collaborative effort that led to the development of the Resiliency Zone resource guide. Resilient Georgia staff and I worked with IECMH experts, Kathy Brown-Bragg (CHRIS 180 Project Director, New Generation- Infant Early Childhood Mental Health Project), Molly Lieberman (Executive Director, Loop It up Savannah), and Dr. Trasie Topple (Founder, Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Resource of Georgia), to develop a Resiliency Zone Guide for Infant and Early Care centers. Resiliency Zones (RZ) are dedicated spaces either, indoors or outdoors, that contain calming toys and activities to help support students when they are dealing with challenging emotions or situations. These spaces are meant to convey a message of safety and use different techniques to build self-esteem and trust between students and staff.
Resiliency Zones: A Guide for Infant and Early Care Settings includes information on Infant and Early Care Mental Health, guidance on how to set up a Resiliency Zone in your daycare or preschool, suggested mindfulness activities, and a list of additional resources to learn more. The goal for this project was to empower IEC educators to respond in a trauma-informed, positive, and non-judgmental way and provide them with the tools to help children manage challenges both in and outside of the centers.
This resource is currently being pilot tested in ten IEC centers in Savannah, Georgia. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and many IEC educators noted the timeliness of this guide given the additional challenges students and educators have been facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While this is an initial version of the guide, with continued feedback from teachers, staff, and students at the pilot sites, this guide will be edited and enhanced in the coming months. The goal for the future is to develop a statewide roll-out plan to provide this resource to Infant and Early Care centers throughout the state of Georgia.
I believe improving mental health at every stage of life should be a priority, especially during the critical stages of early brain development. Offering trainings, creating resources, and developing policies could ultimately help safeguard children from experiencing life-long mental health issues. Ultimately, our ability to thrive and come more fully into ourselves as individuals is possible when we create the space and support to help others work through their challenges.