4 Takeaways on Early Childhood from the 2023 American Psychological Association Conference

by Katie Hammond, MPH, Director of Science Communications

African dance performance

The American Psychological Association’s 2023 Conference took place in Washington, D.C. in early August. This event is the largest gathering of psychological clinicians and researchers in the country, drawing around 10,000 attendees from around the world. Presenters shared cutting edge insights—including the intersection of psychology and technology—as well as new research on existing challenges—such as decolonizing and rehumanizing the field of psychology. This year’s theme, “You Belong Here,” was led by APA’s President Dr. Thema Bryant. Keynote speakers and performers elevated themes of belonging, identity, and justice as core elements of mental well-being. The ICS presentation was on the use of the IMPACT Measures Tool® to support the early childhood workforce to promote equitable measurement. 

This conference featured talks and research findings around several key issues related to early childhood. They included: 

  1. The mental health of the workforce 
  1. Advancing equity and cultural competency among educators 
  1. The effects of COVID-19 on the classroom 
  1. Climate change and mental health 

The mental health of the workforce

“We are asked to do more and more at every turn and lose more plan time… people are not in a good head space.” (Educator)

Burnout and poor mental health have affected the early childhood workforce for a long time. However, in the past few years these challenges have worsened dramatically. Many educators and health care professionals who serve children and families report low levels of confidence and support, poor mental health, and high levels of overwhelm at their jobs.1 They also report low confidence in addressing students’ mental health needs.2

In many cases these issues are worse for women, who, in addition to their careers, often shoulder the burden of caregiving, particularly for the “sandwich generation” who cares for both their children as well as aging parents.3

Tools to help buffer these effects include:

  • Resources and support for professionals, including trauma-informed practices that support the mental health of both children and staff
  • Cultivating resilience and collective hope of teams to empower them to reach their goals
  • Creating supportive workplace leave policies for caregivers

Learn more about this issue, and how to support early childhood professionals, in our Early Childhood Workforce resources.   

Advancing equity and cultural competency among educators 

“Students arrive to the classroom not as empty passive slates to be filled, but as wise and culturally wealthy independent learners.” (Paolo Freire) 

Educators often unintentionally perpetuate harm toward their students, which shows up in the classroom in various ways—from unequal rates of disciplinary punishment by race,4 to poorer quality of feedback and encouragement given to students of color or with learning disabilities.5 In addition, teachers often don’t feel confident in their abilities to support and elevate the differing lived experiences and backgrounds of their students.  

One solution is culturally responsive instruction. This model trains educators to promote equity and cultural humility in the classroom. Culturally responsive instruction strengthens the teacher-student bond which, in turn, increases teacher confidence and positively impacts student learning.  

Elements of culturally responsive instruction: 

  • Cultural awareness 
  • Cultural humility and elevating community cultural wealth 
  • Sociopolitical consciousness 
  • Utilizing cultural capital to shift existing inequitable systems 

The effects of COVID-19 on the classroom 

“Most of these students… were not on campus for two whole years. And so a lot of them struggled when they came back with the lack of social skills, or behavioral issues had increased… This school year was definitely a challenge.” (Elementary school counselor) 
Both students and educators bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on schools. Virtual learning was challenging for young students, who experienced setbacks in pre-academic learning, including early math and literacy, and in their social emotional skills.7 Teachers struggled to foster effective learning environments due to the technological limitations of virtual classrooms.8 The added challenges of shifting back and forth between in-person and virtual settings—or using both simultaneously—further deepened these effects on both students and teachers.  
Some of the reported experiences from teachers included: 

  • Challenges in balancing their life as a teacher, their personal life, and the lives of their students 
  • Going above and beyond to support students outside of work hours, as many students had family members who lost employment or struggled to access support and resources 
  • They saw silver linings where COVID-19 forced school systems to address issues that had otherwise gone unchallenged, such as a higher emphasis on social emotional learning or alternative teaching strategies 

Effects of the pandemic on student mental health included: 

  • Regression of social skills after returning to in-person learning 
  • Notable increase in social anxiety 
  • Reduced emotional regulation and poorer coping skills 

One key step to making improvements for both teachers and students is for school administrators to learn more about those effects in their school or community. If you are an administrator looking for measures of classroom quality, child development, academic skills, and social emotional learning, visit our IMPACT Measures Tool®. You can select measures that fit your needs by using filters on topic, cost, time to complete, language, and more.   

Climate change and mental health 

“With climate change, tornadoes and severe storms like hurricanes are becoming more frequent and severe in our community. A recent tornado knocked out power and water to a majority of households for two weeks. It hit at dismissal and children were stuck at school as their parents tried to navigate through downed trees and power lines to pick them up. For months after, the kids would draw tornadoes and play tornado. Whenever it got cloudy or stormed, they would become visibly frightened. To be honest, so would their teachers and families.” (Allison Kimble-Cusano, EdD, educator and ICS Research Specialist) 
There are many ways that our changing environment can influence our mental well-being. Extreme weather events can cause acute stress and trauma for children and families, especially when their homes are damaged or they are forced to relocate—either temporarily or permanently. Long-term, simmering stress about climate change—also known as “climate anxiety”—can affect both children and adults alike, especially when children see the adults in their lives experiencing this type of stress, or learn about climate change through the media. Young children are especially prone to these negative effects.9 
Researchers say that discussing climate change with children can help them better understand and process their emotions. Cultivating meaning-focused coping skills among children (and adults!) helps support their well-being. Additionally, strengthening the supportive bonds between caregiver and child can serve as a buffer against these stressors.10 
Explore these related resources: 

ICS cares about the health and well-being of all young children and families, and the workforce that supports them. We provide assessment resources to promote prevention and support for early childhood programs. Check out the IMPACT Measures Tool® and search for the following to find relevant early childhood measures:  

  • To begin assessing the mental health of the workforce, search the “Respondent” selections for Teacher Self-Report and Clinician Self-Report.  
  • To begin assessing equity and cultural competency among educators, search “Topic” for Cultural Competency. You may also view our IMPACT Measures Tool® Cultural Relevance Score and how it impacts classroom assessments.   
  • To use assessments to understand the classroom post COVID-19, search “Topic” for Classroom/Childcare Quality, as well as other child and caregiver topics.  
  • To use assessments to understand climate change and mental health, search, “Topic” for Child Mental Health or Caregiver Health and Well-being, and begin by looking at child, family and caregiver well-being outcomes and change over time. 


  1. Carolan, Posey Fischel. (2021.) Early Childhood Workforce: Supporting the Professionals Who Support Our Families. Accessed on August 23, 2023 from  https://www.instituteforchildsuccess.org/resources/resource/early-childhood-workforce-supporting-the-professionals-who-support-our-families/  
  1. Mazzer, Rickwood. (2015). Teachers’ role breadth and perceived efficacy in supporting student mental health. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion. 8. 29-41. 10.1080/1754730X.2014.978119. 
  1. Johnson, Robino, Bynum. Supporting the Well-Being of Female Caregivers in the Workplace. American Psychological Association, August 2023, Washington DC. 
  1. US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. (2021) An Overview of Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Public Schools for the 2017-2018 School Year. Civil Rights Data Collection. Accessed on August 23, 2023 from https://ocrdata.ed.gov/assets/downloads/crdc-exclusionary-school-discipline.pdf  
  1. Nicolai, Koenka, Braxton (2023) A literature review of Black and Latiné youth’s experience of inequitable feedback: How can middle school educators provide motivationally-supportive feedback? Middle School Journal, 54:4, 14-24. 
  1. Sevon. Advancing Equity by Fostering Educators’ Skills in Culturally Responsive Practices. American Psychological Association Conference, August 5, 2023, Washington DC. 
  1. Lee et al. Students’ Challenges with Social Skills in the Post-Pandemic Classroom: A Qualitative Study. American Psychological Association Conference, August 5, 2023, Washington DC. 
  1. Ponnock, et al. “Responsible for the World”: Experiences of Teachers of Color During COVID-19. American Psychological Association Conference, August 5, 2023, Washington DC. 
  1. Burke, Sanson, Van Hoorn. (2018) The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2018 Apr 11;20(5):35.  
  1. Bayshard, Boyle, Willis. Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change on Early Childhood Mental Health. American Psychological Assocation Conference, August 2023, Washington DC. 
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