Pandemic Stress: Supporting the Early Childhood Workforce

Posted on December 13, 2021

By Hannah Korn-Heilner and Nya Earrusso

During the week of October 18, 2021, ACNJ, along with partners from the Think Babies and Pritzker infant mental health workgroup, held Celebrate Babies Week, an initiative of the Association for Infant Mental Health to bring awareness to the needs of our youngest children. This year’s theme was “Sustaining the Essential Role of the Caregiver.” During the pandemic, our caregivers have been essential workers, supporting the social and emotional growth of our babies every day during a stressful time. This week was used as an opportunity to celebrate the power of early relationships, which help set the blueprints for how children feel about themselves and the way they assess future relationships. 

Throughout the week, ACNJ and its partners engaged in social media posts to highlight the needs of young children and co-hosted a webinar featuring a special presentation from Dr. Walter Gilliam from Yale University Child Study Center on his recent research on the impact of the pandemic on young children, their families and child care providers. We cannot forget that early childhood professionals are experiencing mental health concerns during this time as well. With low pay, limited benefits and the added stress of the past year, even veteran professionals are past their breaking point. This in turn can have an impact on the children under their care.    

Preliminary research from Dr. Gilliam has highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the early childhood workforce. Prior to the pandemic, only seven percent of child care providers experienced elevated levels of stress compared to about 20 percent in May and June of 2020 and 19 percent in June of 2021. Additionally, about 9.6 percent of providers experienced depression prior to the pandemic compared to 41.7 percent in May and June of 2020 and 35.8 percent in June of 2021.

While child care workers enabled parents to work before and during the pandemic, they are an overworked and underpaid group, overrepresented by Black women who have been historically subjugated to positions of servitude raising white children for little to no pay. It is no surprise that Dr. Gilliam found in his preliminary research that 6.9 percent of early childhood educators experienced racial aggression/exclusion and 15.5 percent witnessed it.

A Promising Solution to Support the Mental Health of Infants, Toddlers and Caregivers

Infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) consultation is an evidence-based, collaborative service that partners qualified infant and early childhood mental health professionals with adults who have caregiving responsibility for children. The practice is rooted in the promotion of equitable relational and emotional well-being through the formation of supportive relationships with adults who care for children. This service differs from traditional mental health services, which tend to be primarily individually focused on infant, child or adult dysfunction and treatment, to instead a more public health/promotional approach by assisting the adults who care for children. 

IECMH consultants may focus on the needs in a classroom, those for a child/family or those of a system or program to improve the quality of life for children and their caregivers. Coming from varying backgrounds like early education, psychology, social work counseling and more, IECMHC professionals aim to equip caregivers to support infant and toddler emotional development. Additionally, they intend to prevent, identify and hopefully reduce stress and stress reactions amongst staff.

In New Jersey, IECMHC is operated through the Social Emotional Formation Initiative (SEFI) out of Montclair State University’s (MSU) Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health (CAECMH), which is funded by the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development. SEFI supports the adults who care for infants and young children to reduce stress and promote relational and developmental health. This program is able to provide services virtually and in person in English and Spanish for early care and education programs in all counties of New Jersey. The MSU team has recently expanded to 18 consultants who are able to provide services to the multidisciplinary professionals around the state. 

MSU also offers additional programs and services under the auspices of the Professional Formation Center for the Early Relational Health Workforce, which provides professional formation, coaching/consultation and systems coordination to the multidisciplinary workforce who support families prenatally through Kindergarten, including home visitation programs, doulas and other childbirth educators, Early Intervention practitioners, the Children’s System of Care and any other programs or services that intersect with young children and families. These include Keeping Babies and Children in Mind (KBCM), a training series designed for professionals working with young children to raise knowledge and build their competencies on how to support early relational and developmental health. While the training was originally implemented after Hurricane Sandy to address the impact of disasters on young children, it has now been expanded statewide and is offered for free to all prenatal, infant, early childhood and family service professionals. Additionally, the 3Cs program, Conversations for Connection, Comfort, and Calm, started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and provides the early relational health workforce a space for support and reflection. MSU also offers longer term Reflective Consultation groups for professionals who may be interested in a longer term reflective experience, or those interested in the NJ-AIMH Endorsement). 


As families continue to return to work, our child care providers are even more essential than ever. So while Celebrate Babies Week is over, it’s important to continue to advocate for and address the needs of our early childhood workforce. For more information about the SEFI Support program or the Professional Formation Center at MSU, please email or call 973-826-7971.