Making a Difference in Niagara Region with Infant Mental Health Promotion and Training!

As a Community Action Program for Children (CAPC) or Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program (CPNP) provider you may be familiar with author Robert Fulghum’s short essay, All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. In one of the lines the author writes, “wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school”.  

Fulghum’s heart-warming essay highlights the importance of the skills that come during early learning. The development of these skills allows children to effectively regulate their own emotions and support healthy and productive relationships around them.

Much of the current research is focusing on the idea that building a good foundation for life begins with healthy brain development much earlier. In fact, during the period from 0-3 years is foundational. That’s why stories about Infant Mental Health from Niagara Region in this E-blast hopefully inspire and encourage you to continue educating parents about their vital role in their child’s development.

Recently I was able to have a conversation with Tracy Belcastro, Project Manager CAPC/CPNP, from Adolescent’s Family Support Services of Niagara.  I had heard through the ‘grapevine’ about how Tracy and others have been working in Niagara Region to bring a greater awareness to the need for Infant Mental Health training for her staff, and other child care service providers in the Region. I was inspired by her story and her passion for the work that she does. Below is our conversation:

Rod: What impact in program staff and parents after delivering Infant Mental Health training?

Tracy: [For staff] the big keys were understanding the importance of your job and how you can really help to offset mental illness in a child’s life.  [For parents] it was being more responsive to their child and responding to their needs. There was a misconception that they are going to spoil their child. I noticed that in the age of cell phones parents are more readily using cell phones and do not always respond when their baby is crying. One immediate impact that I noticed right after an education session is that parents see the importance of being attuned to their child and are more readily apt to put down the cell phone and pick up their child. For some parents, they did not have the experience with a family. [Before] A lot of parents did not feel comfortable with hugging and cuddling, as this has not been a comfort zone for them.

Rod: What was it about the IMH training that resonated with you and your team the most?

Tracy: I realized while participating in the training that our organization fostered much of the same philosophy around relationship building and the importance of it, and how this information we received related to the participants we support. This information needed to be shared with staff to better equip them in continuing to support families. Staff have learned the significance of early years to short and long term health outcomes both physical and mental. They have become stronger advocates for infants and toddlers. The big key is understanding the importance of your job here. How you can really help to offset mental illness in a child’s life.

You mentioned in your slide presentation that the IMH course opened your eyes to the important role front line staff can have with infants and families.  Tell me more about this.

Tracy: Knowing that our frontline staff already have a good understanding of the at risk parent I feel this piece took our support to another level. This promotion allowed staff to hear that the work they do every day does actually effect and can offset toxic stress in a child’s life. We discussed ways of how best staff can support the child/family with a developmental support plan while they wait on waitlists for referrals.

What did you see begin to see happen in (yourself, staff, infants, families) as a result of the IMH training?

Tracy: There was an awareness/passion with staff and a greater respect for the work that we’re doing. For the families and children in our programs we have seen and hope to continue to see parents more responsive to their child. As well the relationship between parent and child grow in a positive strong direction. Staff understand how many adverse outcomes can be prevented when parents are provided with support and information to respond to their infants and children. The passion to support families in Niagara is very strong it has broken down systemic barriers and agencies who have never sat together to plan for families are now doing so. I have become a stronger advocate for infants and toddlers.

What changes did you begin to see in the community as awareness of IMH began to be discussed?

Tracy: I believed that this information needed to be shared. What the families don’t know is leaving an ill effect on their child. The community came together to ensure all programs were hearing this message and working together to promote IMH in the Niagara community. The passion to support families in Niagara is strong. This promotion has broken down systemic barriers and agencies who have never sat together to plan for families are now doing so.

Over the past year and a half, what have you learned through this journey?

Tracy: I’ve learned how IMH promotion has empowered staff and families to foster trusting relationships. As well how well the community can come together and build relationships with one common goal which is to support families and children in Niagara in the best way possible. This has also helped to strengthen partnerships and take them to the next level.

Did anything surprise you?

Tracy: The presentation to Young Dad’s programs and how well it was received. The young fathers were eager to learn this information and were extremely engaged. Comments from dad were that it was so nice to see pictures of dads with babies as they feel that only moms could nurture. The Dad’s group I spoke with were very engaged, and eager to learn more about responding to your baby’s needs.  The interest families had in this topic which confirmed my thoughts that parents always want to do a good job but they only know what they know.

What advice do you have for anyone thinking about implementing IMH training and promotion in their community?

Tracy: That this information is vital for every community to ensure children are building the foundation for future success. Management staff along with front line staff need to be together in training.  Management can bring this promotion forward in the community, as well as oversee the implementation in programs. You also have to have a champion and to exhibit that passion to staff.

Can you give us a glimpse of where the communities’ collective vision for the future of IMH promotion in Niagara Region may lead?

Tracy: There is a committee Niagara Infant Mental Health Pilot Project Advisory Committee who’s purpose of this committee is to pilot the use of the ASQ3[1] and the ASQSE[2] and the developmental support plan and the early learning and child care programs across Niagara to determine effectiveness value.

Tell me a little bit about the 3 day workshop with Dr. Chaya Kulkarni.

Tracy: On March 24th, 2014 Adolescent’s Family Support Services of Niagara (AFSSN) in collaboration with their community partners hosted a two-day training to explore the basic principles related to infant mental health. Participants were invited to attend a follow up session and discussed how strategies were progressing.  This event was available to early learning and child care programs, family resource programs, CAPC/CPNP programs, special needs agencies, public health teams, home visitors, case workers and others who work with very young children. 

The workshop was led by Dr. Chaya Kulkarni, Director of Infant Mental Health Promotion at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. Dr. Kulkarni is the author of the book Your Guide to Nurturing Parent Child Relationships. She currently leads advocacy and training initiatives in areas such as child welfare, including family courts and community based programs.  She has made those who participated in the training aware of materials and resources that are available on the IMH website.[3]  

What is your long term vision for Infant Mental Health and the Advisory Committee?

Tracy: The long vision is to have it endorsed by Niagara Children’s Planning Council and then to approach QCCN (Quality Child Care Niagara) to make it part of their training, and then implemented through the ECE course at Niagara College as part of their curriculum.

That is an ambitious goal. Is there anything else you want to share?

Tracy: It’s been an awesome journey. Niagara Region has been so supportive!

It is out of this passion to support families in Niagara that the larger community is and service providers are working together on a common goal. As Tracy put it in the interview, “it was a nice time for all service providers to hear the same message.” Her hope is as a result of this awareness there will be an emphasis on addressing the gaps in their local systems by providing seamless services. Her hope is that she can build capacity, strengthen partnerships and provide better services. A local IMH Pilot Project advisory committee has been setup and serves the following functions:

  • This committee will provide advisement for the direction of the pilot program and support sites as needed.
  • Should the pilot be successful, help mobilize the use of the tools across Niagara.
  • Participate in communicating the pilot outcomes to the larger early learning and child care community.
  • Supporting the pilot sites with the development of goals and strategies.
  • Continue as a supportive network beyond the pilot to offer a collaborative approach to supporting families in need.
  • Building capacities and expertise for supporting mental health issues.

For more information on this article please contact Rod Friesen, Manager, Ontario Network of CAPC and CPNP Projects, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Tracy Belcastro, Project Manager CAPC/CPNP, from Adolescent’s Family Support Niagara This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[1] Ages & Stages Questionnaires:

[2] Ages & Stages Questionnaires: Socio-emotional:

[3] Infant Mental Health Promotion Website:

Success is a journey, not a destination.
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