Voices From the Field: Interview with Amy Hunter

Supporting Children’s Mental Health

Amy Hunter

Amy Hunter is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) who earned her Masters of Social Work degree at Boston University. Amy has a post graduate certificate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Early Childhood Mental Health. She currently serves as an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development. In her capacity at Georgetown she co-leads the post-graduate clinical certificate program on infant early childhood mental health and co-directs the mental health section of the Head Start National Center on Health, Behavioral Health and Safety. Additionally, Amy serves as a lead on the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI), a training and technical assistance center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs. Amy has worked in the field of infant early childhood mental health for over thirty years.

How did you begin your career in early childhood?

My career in early childhood began in my undergraduate and graduate (Master of Social Work) education. As an undergraduate, I participated in research studying very young children’s emotional regulation. As a graduate student, I had an internship at Boston City Hospital’s Sexual Abuse Treatment Team where I conducted therapy and evaluations with children who had experienced sexual abuse. After graduate school, I worked part-time as a therapist in community mental health clinics and I worked full time as a Behavior Specialist in a large Head Start program. Over time, the Head Start position evolved from a Behavior Specialist position to a Mental Health Manager role overseeing five Behavior Specialists and multiple graduate student interns. In 2003, I was selected as a Head Start Fellow and came to Washington D.C., where I spent two years at the Office of Head Start focused on supporting mental health services. Each of these early career positions confirmed my commitment to building the capacity of early care and education to support the mental health of young children and their families. 

What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

Early in my career, as a therapist, Behavior Specialist and a Mental Health Manager, I helped build the capacity of early childhood teachers, family service workers, interventionists, special educators, program leaders, and families to support young children’s social emotional development and effectively respond to children’s challenging behavior. As a Head Start Fellow, I worked with colleagues at the Office of Head Start to raise awareness about the importance of mental health in early childhood. I’ve been involved with a number of federally-funded training and technical assistance centers, which currently include: the National Center on Health, Behavioral Health and Safety (NCHBHS); the Center of Excellence on Infant Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (CoE IECMHC); the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI), and the Georgetown Clinical Certificate Program on Infant Early Childhood Mental Health. Each of these training and technical assistance efforts focuses on enhancing early childhood professionals’ and systems’ abilities to support the mental health (i.e. social emotional development) of young children and families. 

What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Early in my career, the biggest challenge was trying to convince the public and policy makers that young children’s mental health is real, is important, and that there are many things we can do to support young children’s mental health at the earliest stages in their development. Many people believed that very young children don’t have mental health. In other words, many people did not believe that young children could experience a range of emotions or that young children could experience mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. Often people did not understand how very young children were significantly impacted by their environment and their earliest experiences. It was, and unfortunately, still is, common to hear adults say that very young children don’t notice, don’t understand or won’t remember upsetting or scary events. On the contrary, we know that young children are significantly and uniquely impacted by people, experiences, and events around them. The science is crystal clear that early experiences (including early relationships with caregivers) shape the architecture of the developing brain. 

What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?

In order to improve early childhood services and programs for all children and families, it is particularly important to explore and address structural inequities that exist in the ability to access high quality early childhood services. Often the children and families that are most in need of high-quality services receive the least quality services. Improving early childhood services and programs requires funding efforts specifically designed to support children and families from marginalized communities. Efforts will be most effective and impactful when they consider equity and analyze data and evaluation through an equity lens (i.e., who benefits from the program; who has access to the program; are there disparate impacts for different groups of children and families; who was involved in the research and evaluation of the program; etc.). Additional suggestions for those interested in improving early childhood services include ensuring local community leaders and families are involved in improvement efforts. Strong family and community engagement can provide early childhood programs and systems with valuable information about family’s needs, interests and strengths. Strong family and community engagement in efforts to improve early childhood result in a shared responsibility for the optimal development of young children that can extend far beyond the early childhood years.

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