Working To Ensure That All Young Children and Their Caregivers Have Access to High-Quality Resources That Equitably Support Social-Emotional Development and Mental Health

June 14, 2022

Dear Colleagues:

The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (ED) are working together to ensure that all young children and their caregivers have access to high-quality resources that equitably support social-emotional development and mental health. Social-emotional development and mental health are foundational for family well-being and children’s healthy development and early learning and are associated with positive long-term health, educational, and well-being outcomes.

Early childhood systems and programs play a vital role in supporting the social-emotional development and mental health of children and families. Early childhood systems and programs refer to the full range of systems and services that interact with young children and their families, including early care and education programs; two-generation programs; family support programs; and child welfare, social, health, and behavioral health service systems. These support systems and services are particularly important when children and families experience contexts or situations that may overwhelm their ability to cope, including discrimination; the COVID-19 pandemic; food insecurity; housing instability; and exposure to child abuse and neglect, interpersonal and community violence, or other traumatic events. Protective factors, such as strong, trusting relationships with adults and safe, stable family and community environments, can help develop children’s ability to cope with stress and can promote healthy child development. A comprehensive, equitable, and culturally informed early childhood system is integral to support child, family, and community health and well-being. 

HHS and ED believe that early childhood systems should work collaboratively to equip all early childhood professionals (i.e., early educators, health providers, and family-support providers) with the tools to support and promote the social-emotional development and mental health of young children and their families. State and local policymakers and administrators of child and family-serving systems, agencies, and programs should ensure equitable access to a continuum of social-emotional and mental health supports and services for all children. Systems that serve young children and their families should work to address family economic insecurity, barriers to preventive care, and the implementation of evidence-based interventions and services. These systems should also address the needs of children and families of color in underserved communities,1 children and families whose first language is not English, children who have experienced maltreatment, children with developmental delays and disabilities, children who experience homelessness, and families experiencing poverty.

In service of the above goals, HHS and ED developed four recommendations to complement the October 2021 ED report on Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs. This 2021 report identified seven recommendations to increase the capacity of states, districts, schools, programs, and institutions of higher education to provide social, emotional, and behavioral health support and to improve outcomes for children and students. The ED report was developed to assist a wide range of school- or program-based mental health support across early childhood programs, K–12 schools, and higher education settings. In this letter we focus on the application of a targeted set of recommendations to the systems and services that work together to meet the needs of young children from the prenatal period through age 5 and their families. The four recommendations with suggested action steps are as follows:

  1. Implement evidence-based practices that support positive social-emotional development and mental health for all children and wellness for every caregiver.
  2. Prioritize workforce wellness and enhance workforce capacity to identify and respond to children’s and families’ social-emotional and mental health needs.
  3. Leverage policy and funding to increase access to social-emotional and mental health support and to reduce barriers to access.
  4. Use data to promote equitable implementation and outcomes.

The joint HHS-ED recommendations included in this letter are intended to set a vision for stronger collaboration and coordination across early childhood systems and programs; raise awareness of the importance of social-emotional development and mental health for young children; encourage early childhood programs and other services and systems that interact with young children and their families and caregivers to prioritize access to the full continuum of social-emotional and mental health supports and services; and provide resources, guidance, and recommendations on approaches that communities, states, Tribes, and territories can use to promote and support young children’s social-emotional development and mental health.

The original Dear Colleague Letter with detailed information on the above-mentioned recommendations is available by visiting this Office of Early Childhood Development webpagePlease share the letter and resources with your programs and networks.

Thank you for your commitment to serving young children and families.

Sincerely,

/KH/

Katie Hamm
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development
Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

/KN/

Katherine Neas
Deputy Assistant Secretary
Delegated the authority to perform the functions and duties of the
Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
U.S. Department of Education

1 Based on Executive Order 13985: The term “underserved communities” refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life. See: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/01/25/2021-01753/advancing-racial-equity-and-support-for-underserved-communities-through-the-federal-government.

Office of Child Care
Administration for Children and Families

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Mary E. Switzer Building, Fourth Floor, MS 4425

330 C Street, S.W.
Washington, DC  20201
General office number: (202) 690-6782
Fax: (202) 690-5600
General email: occ@acf.hhs.gov
Website: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/occ