UConn School of Social Work’s Innovations Institute Expands Expertise to Promote the Well-being of Infants and Young Children

'For some children the need for mental health support—and the questions their parents have around social and emotional development—start well before school'

A young father sits on a carpeted floor, spoonfeeding his infant child.


Innovations Institute, in the UConn School of Social Work, is welcoming a new team of specialists focused on the behavioral health of parents, infants, and very young children. Research has demonstrated that the positive social emotional development of very young children serves as the critical building blocks for learning and positive mental health. The work of this Parent, Infant, and Early Childhood team centers around the adults who interact with infants and very young children including parents and caregivers, relatives, pediatricians, social workers, childcare workers, preschool educators, and more.

“For some children the need for mental health support—and the questions their parents have around social and emotional development—start well before school,” Innovations Institute Executive Director Michelle Zabel says. “Having the expertise and capacity to build effective public-serving systems to address these needs at the earliest possible time in a child’s life can have a huge impact for some families.”

Innovations Institute works in partnership with state and local governments, provider organizations, and hospitals, as well as with the federal government to build public systems that effectively serve children, youth, and their families. They are currently working in over 40 states across the country. As an interdisciplinary, translational research center, they hold expertise in health and human services systems, crisis response systems, LGBTQ+ populations, policy and financing, systems design and implementation, research and evaluation, and workforce development all to improve supports, systems, services, and outcomes for children, youth, young adults, and families.

With the arrival of seven new faculty and staff, Innovations is expanding their work to address the first years in a child’s life when positive social emotional health can lay a strong foundation for healthy growth and development throughout childhood and into adulthood. A child’s ability to express and regulate their emotions, to navigate peer and adult interactions and develop trusting relationships, to begin to explore and learn are key factors in their initial and enduring success in educational settings through high school. This team will support the State of Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood in their efforts to evaluate access and quality of early learning opportunities across the state. They will also collaborate with states across the country to support the design and implementation of systems and services that address the social and emotional needs of children in their communities.

“Now is the critical moment for our team to join nationwide efforts to promote the well-being of infants and very young children in their families,” says Associate Research Professor Margo Candelaria, co-director of the team.

Their work is grounded in equity-informed, developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive practices ensuring that the stressors that impact the mental health of families including racism, and poverty are carefully considered in programs and services. Data shows that significant number of infants born in the U.S., particularly infants of color, are growing up with risk factors proven to have long-term negative impacts on their development including poverty, parental unemployment, lack of access to services, and inadequate housing. Investments in policies and programs to reduce these risks are needed to support optimal development for young children and their families.

“Both the rise of the mental health crisis among youth in the U.S. and the corresponding burnout among early childhood educators and childcare providers make the expansion of our work critical,” says Assistant Extension Professor Kate Sweeney, co-director of the team.

Led by Candelaria and Sweeney, the team promotes the use of evidence-based practices to support the social and emotional development of infants and very young children as well as their families including the Pyramid Model for Social Emotional Competence and Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. These models help ensure that those working with infants, very young children, and their parents are well trained in best and innovative practices to promote social emotional skills and address behavioral concerns.

The team has an extensive profile of projects that focus on improving the amount and quality of infant and mental health services across a variety of settings including childcare, pediatrics, among incarcerated parent populations, with substance use and mental health centers, and with agencies serving homeless and housing unstable youth.  Innovation’s Parent, Infant, and Early Childhood team supports evidence-based program implementation, workforce development, and evaluation efforts as critical early childhood investments.