Illinois Model of Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Improves Staff Reflective Capacity, Classroom Climate

What We Did

Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC) is a relationship-based, collaborative support designed to improve the capacity of early childhood professionals to promote children’s mental health. We conducted a 3-year pilot study of the Illinois Model of IECMHC with 23 early childhood programs, including child care, pre-K, and home visiting. We used a mixed-methods, matched-comparison group design measuring both the implementation and effects of the pilot.

What We Found

Mental health consultants successfully implemented the Illinois Model with fidelity in early childhood center-based and home visiting programs, despite implementation challenges.

The Illinois Model showed positive effects in the following areas:

  • Staff reflective capacity: Staff who received the Illinois Model showed positive changes on two standardized measures of staff reflective capacity. Interview data confirmed growth in staff reflective capacity evidenced in 1) active listening and deeper exploration of issues, 2) thinking critically about one’s reactions and biases, 3) considering others’ perspectives, and 4) setting clear boundaries and being mindful of self-care.
  • Classroom climate: Teachers who received the Illinois Model were more effective at cultivating a positive classroom climate by (1) setting, modeling, and enforcing clear, consistent, and developmentally appropriate rules of conduct and applying proactive and positive behavior strategies, and (2) promoting equity by attending to children equitably and providing individualized support.
  • Home visits: Home visitors who received the Illinois Model more frequently engaged in responsive behaviors during home visit and elicited input on visit content and activities from the parents. Parents whose home visitors received the Illinois Model tended to report higher satisfaction in their role as parents.

However, we did not see changes in standardized measures of staff-supervisor relationships (which were assessed quite favorably at baseline) or measures of burnout or depression (assessed low at baseline). Other factors, specifically, teacher position and race/ethnicity, appeared to have a stronger effect on these outcomes than the intervention did.

There were no significant differences between the intervention and comparison groups on child assessments, but teachers receiving the Illinois Model tended to rate children’s behavioral problems as less severe over time. Additionally teachers with higher reflective capacity perceived children to have fewer problems with aggression, withdrawal, attention, and control of emotions. On the other hand, teachers consistently viewed boys as having more severe behavioral problems than girls.

What It Means

This evaluation resulted in several important findings relevant to practitioners, policymakers, and researchers interested in understanding what IECMHC can accomplish for program staff, families, and children.

  • Practice: The Illinois Model showed itself to be adaptable to various early childhood settings and effective in developing staff reflective capacity, but implementation supports are needed to ensure program leaders and staff are committed to and prepared to receive mental health consultation.
  • Research: We need additional research to determine whether the findings of this study can be repeated in other settings, particularly in staff professionalization, staff retention, improvements in behavioral regulation in children, and reductions in harsh disciplinary practices.
  • Policy: The Illinois preschool expulsion ban legislation (Public Act 100-0105) was passed just prior to this study. This study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting IECMHC is an effective support for early childhood program administrators and staff to develop new strategies for working with children perceived to have challenging behaviors.
Recommended Citation
Spielberger, J., Burkhardt, T., Winje, C., Pacheco-Applegate, A., Gitlow, E., Carreon, E., Huang, L. A., Herriott, A., & Kakuyama-Villaber, R. (2021). Evaluation of the Illinois Model of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Pilot. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
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