Children and youth at different developmental stages have different needs and strengths. For example, what works with teenagers doesn't necessarily work with young children. Early childhood is one of our key priority areas because what happens in early childhood (from birth to age six) sets the stage for later mental health.

Why early childhood matters

Healthy social-emotional development in early childhood is an essential building block for good mental health throughout life. Recent Ontario data suggests that a troubling number of children experience social-emotional vulnerability in their earliest years. These issues are starting to be seen more often in early learning and care settings, as well as classrooms throughout the province. Promoting mental health across the lifespan and acting early to prevent mental illness is crucial for individuals, families and communities.

Beyond building blocks

In 2014 we co-developed the policy paper Supporting Ontario's youngest minds: Investing in the mental health of children under 6 that helped create a shared understanding of infant and early childhood mental health in Ontario and called attention to the importance of early identification and intervention. In 2018 we partnered with Infant Mental Health Promotion (SickKids) and School Mental Health Ontario to develop a second policy paper deepening our focus on the mental health and social-emotional development of children between three and six years old. We published Beyond building blocks: Investing in the lifelong mental health of Ontario's three- to six-year-olds in 2019, with eight recommendations to guide our work targeting this developmental age.

From recommendations to action

We decided that we wouldn't simply let our policy recommendations linger on a shelf. Along with Infant Mental Health Promotion, we're moving ahead to action two recommendations from the latest policy paper:

  • Ensure high-quality, evidence-based preservice training and ongoing learning for service providers across sectors
  • Strengthen partnerships to create efficient care pathways for mental health services in the early years

A care pathway helps guide children, youth and families to, through and out of care. It ensures that families get the right service at the right time and in the right way to best meet their child's or youth's mental health needs. In a high-quality mental health system, care pathways are accessible, efficient and effective. They reflect coordination between multiple providers and create better continuity of care.

We're also working to validate an adapted version of the HEADS-ED tool for children ages five and under. Already in use for older children, the adapted tool will help primary care providers recognize the signs of problems when they surface in younger children and connect families with community-based mental health services sooner.

HEADS-ED is a brief, easy-to-use mental health screening tool that looks at seven aspects of a child or youth's thought processes, behaviours and their surrounding social environment. Findings from this tool help guide assessment and decision-making about treatment and help primary care providers connect patients with the right community services.