Support for Building Positive Mental Health in Early Childhood

June 12, 2024
A young female occupational therapist is seated across a young male patient. They are both focused on playing with a bead maze that is in between them. They are both dressed casually for their appointment together.

We asked Deborah Chalmers, our Director of Early Childhood Mental Health, key questions about nurturing healthy social-emotional development in kids. Deborah, a trained therapist specializing in children, has worked as an educational consultant and formerly served with the Erikson Institute, a leading graduate school for early childhood development, education, and social work in Chicago.


Q: How can adults help develop and support positive mental health in young children?


A: Learn to talk openly about emotions.

Deborah notes adults should pay as much attention to children’s social-emotional development as we do their physical growth and milestones. This includes helping them develop an awareness of their emotions.

“Talk openly about their emotional states, including times when they are sad, afraid, angry…or even times they feel anxious,” Deborah explains. “It models for children that we are human, and talking openly about our emotions can help us to understand them and get better at managing them.”

“Recognize those emotions your child clearly struggles with and explore with your child the ‘whys’ of their behavior—without directly asking why,” she adds. “Children may not always know ‘why.’  But keeping the conversation within the context of an event or situation can help them better understand the ‘why.’”


Q: What should adults do if they have a concern about a child’s social/emotional development or behaviors?


A: If you’re a child care provider in Cook County, reach out to us.

“We currently have 11 Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants (ECMHCs) serving Cook County,” notes Deborah. “They are situated relative to our community partner areas [listed below]. We can be reached via email at”

If you live outside of Cook County, find a consultant near you by using our Community Partner Directory.

· Good Shepherd (South/Southwest Suburbs)

· Centers for New Horizon (Southside)

· Carole Robinson Center for Learning (Southside)

· IAFC (Northside)

· Good Shepherd (North/ North Suburbs)

Learn more about Illinois Action for Children’s Early Childhood Mental Health Services.


Q: What are some of the misconceptions adults (whether parents or educators) have about working with a childhood mental health consultant/practitioner?


A: We don’t have all of the answers.

“We do not fix situations, children, teachers, or parents,” explains Deborah. “We don’t come with all the answers. We do expect providers to follow through with recommendations or suggestions provided to them over the course of consultation.”


Q: Why is it important for adults who care for children with social-emotional challenges to have their own support? What kind of support do you recommend?


A: You want to preserve the relationship between the child and adult.

“We know that the relationship is key, not only to [children’s] survival, but also in promoting and shaping children’s social-emotional development, emotional well-being, and their ability to learn,” says Deborah, who cites additional professionals like occupational therapists, physical therapists, school districts, and support groups as helpful resources for adults.

“A lot depends on the types of challenges being experienced,” she clarifies. “That will best determine which of these supports and resources could work.”


Q: What are some resources for parents, caregivers, or educators that can support their understanding of early childhood mental health?


A: You can find a plethora of useful information online. These are some of my top recommendations:


Did you know that Illinois Action for Children offers early childhood mental health training services to child care and early learning professionals throughout Chicago and Cook County—free of charge?

Learn More About Our Mental Health Services


Connect with an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant

Contact us to connect with a dedicated consultant and receive free mental health support tailored to your needs.






Deborah Chalmers, Director of Early Childhood Mental Health

Brumentha Bony, Program Manager

Margaret Khoshaba, Program Manager

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