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CSSP welcomes guest blogger, Amy Turner-Thole of First Steps Kent, who shares the story behind a great victory for young children in Kent County, a community of more than 600,000 people in western Michigan, which includes Grand Rapids. First Steps Kent, a longstanding member of the Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network for Communities (EC-LINC) supported by CSSP, has been working tirelessly to secure sustainable financing for early childhood services in the county. We congratulate First Steps Kent and its partners on reaching a key milestone in this effort! 

“This is not only the right thing to do, but it is also the smart thing to do.” 

That has been a guiding mantra for the coalition of community leaders working for the last two decades to increase investment in our youngest children. It was a message that resonated with the Kent County Board of Commissioners as its members voted June 28 to put an early childhood millage, or property tax levy, on the county-wide ballot in November.

 “We are grateful that our county commissioners see the value in providing high-quality early childhood services so that kids are healthy and ready to succeed in school,” said Annemarie Valdez, president/CEO of First Steps Kent, the nonprofit organization that proposed the early childhood millage. “We believe voters in our community will do the same.”

If approved by Kent County voters, the millage will generate approximately $5.5 million a year for six years to pay for services including home visiting, play and learn groups, developmental screenings, and navigation to help families access those resources. Funding will be distributed to community-based organizations to increase the number of children and families they serve. A portion of the funds will be used to develop a community-wide data system to measure impact. 

While First Steps Kent led the efforts to get the issue on the ballot, the public campaign will be handed over to Yes Ready by 5. With a “yes” vote in November, Kent County would become the first county in Michigan with a dedicated property millage for early childhood services. 

Getting to this point has been a long journey. 

In the early 1990’s, there was a growing understanding among child advocates that improving outcomes and eliminating longstanding disparities would require starting earlier—with babies and toddlers. What followed was a process of research, education, and consensus-building. Part of that was to bring together a powerful cadre of “unusual suspects” to champion the cause. 

“We reached out to influential business and community leaders who cared about kids and understood that we had to do things differently to get different results,” explained Kate Pew Wolters, co-chair of First Steps Kent and chair of the Steelcase Foundation. “We were intentionally bipartisan, recognizing that we needed people from diverse perspectives if we were really going to advance the community conversation.”   

That conversation focused on both the moral imperative and the business case, with a heavy emphasis on the return on investment associated with high-quality early childhood programs. There have been extensive public will-building efforts and education campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of early childhood. The community has seen significant gains over the last two decades, thanks to both public and private investments. However, the current capacity still falls far short of the need.             

First Steps Kent conducted an analysis in 2017, to better understand how many children and families are served currently, how many more need support, and what it would cost to provide those services. It uncovered big gaps including the fact that more than half of children eligible for home visiting are not receiving the service. Only 15 percent of economically disadvantaged three-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. Fewer than one-third of young children get routine developmental screenings.             

A successful millage will not fill all those gaps. What it will do is provide sustainable funding for some of the most vital early childhood services that will improve outcomes for children and families and achieve results that can influence public policy. It will help attract additional private funders as they recognize Kent County as a place where their collective investments can make a significant impact. It will demonstrate our community’s commitment to the principle that every child deserves to be healthy and ready to learn, and the understanding that our future prosperity depends on it.

Amy Turner-Thole is a communications consultant who has worked with First Steps Kent for the last 10 years.

CSSP’s Young Children and Their Families (YCF) team joins the loud chorus of voices from around the country in celebration of children and parents who identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). Like all parents, those who identify as LGBTQ want what is best for their children and hold big dreams for their futures. Children who identify as LGBTQ or who are gender non-conforming need the same unconditional love and support from their parents and other caring adults as all children do. All families, regardless of family members’ sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE), have their own unique strengths and challenges. And all parents, regardless of SOGIE, need support from time to time. Early childhood professionals are a key source of such support. Through everyday interactions, professionals in the fields of early care and education, health, and family support build close relationships with families that promote child and family well-being. In the remaining days of Pride Month, we highlight a few resources for families and early childhood providers in support of LGBTQ children and families. Happy Pride Month!

These resources from the National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement offer tips for early childhood providers on creating a welcoming program for LGBTQ families. Written for Head Start and Early Head Start programs, these resources are also relevant to a wide range of early childhood programs and settings, from Center-based and Family Child Care to Pre-kindergarten classrooms to home visiting programs. They include: Partnering with Parents Who Identify as LGBT, A Checklist for Programs, Children's Books that Include Diverse Family Structures, and Resources about Diverse Family Structures.

This CSSP blog post on Gender, Sexuality and Parenting (October, 2017) explores key questions about SOGIE and parenting: How should parents respond when their young children embrace a gender identity and/or expression that doesn’t line up with expectations? How should parents respond when their teenage or young adult children come out? What commitments do foster and adoptive parents make to accept the children and young people they bring into their families? On the other side of the parenting equation, does a parent’s SOGIE matter to their ability to love and nurture children? Should parents’ SOGIE be taken into consideration as systems try to find homes for the children needing families in this country?

With partners at Family Builders By Adoption in Oakland, California, CSSP’s getR.E.A.L. initiative developed a guide, Raising Healthy and Happy LGBT & Gender Non-Conforming Children, to help parents navigate what may be unfamiliar terrain. Birth parent, foster parent or adoptive parent, it boils down to being loving, supportive, accepting and open with your child, and advocating for them with other people or institutions (like church or school) that may not be as supportive.

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents,” Facts for Families No. 92 from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry dispels myths related to the outcomes for children raised by LGBTQ parents compared to those for children from heterosexual families. The report concludes that it is the quality of the parent relationships with young children that affects their development.

Anna Lovejoy is a senior associate at CSSP.

Each April marks national Child Abuse Prevention Month, an effort to bring attention to preventing child abuse, as well as to elevate the needs and strengths of families and children. In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, many states and communities hold special events and run messaging campaigns, while federal agencies shine a spotlight on effective prevention strategies and the role that prevention should play in our overall approach to child and family well-being. Our partners at Prevent Child Abuse America use the pinwheel as a symbol of prevention and “great childhoods” – and each April “pinwheel gardens” are planted in communities across the country to symbolize a commitment to ensuring that children have great childhoods free of abuse and neglect.

This year, I was pleased to see the creative and positive ways that many of our federal, state and local partners recognized Child Abuse Prevention Month – including the use of our Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework to focus on family strengths. I also fielded questions from several people about the relationship between Strengthening Families and child maltreatment prevention, which led me to reflect on the shift toward focusing on universal family strengths that has recently taken place in the prevention field.

For the past 15 years, Strengthening Families has helped to shift the conversation about child abuse and neglect prevention toward a positive and strengths-based one, focusing on how we – as a society, in our communities and in child- and family-serving programs – can support all families to build the key protective factors that they need in order to thrive. Previously, prevention efforts focused on risk factors, and often inadvertently alienated the families they intended to help. These deficit-based efforts also fell short in that they didn’t give service providers or community members anything constructive to do to help families they encountered who needed some support, short of formal involvement with the child welfare system.

Strengthening Families has been a big player in “flipping the script” for many human service providers, who have seen that starting from strengths and approaching parents in a spirit of partnership and respect, yields better results. Recognizing and building on family strengths is the surest way to help families weather any storms they may face, and still provide safe, stable, nurturing care to their children.

This universal, strengths-based approach has been embraced by thousands of professionals, not just in the family support field (where it originated) but in early care and education, home visiting, child welfare and other child- and family-serving fields. Reflecting this shift, the federal Prevention Resource Guide has been structured around protective factors for several years, providing concrete guidance for service providers and other community partners to help families build their protective factors.

For us at CSSP, we are glad to see our partners around the country using Strengthening Families as the basis of their prevention efforts. Here are a few great examples of Prevention Month activities that incorporated a focus on protective factors this year:

  • Prevent Child Abuse America shared parenting tips related to the protective factors.
  • Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina organized a “5 Factors 5K” run/walk to engage community members in learning about the protective factors while also raising funds for prevention programs in the community. (See our article about this in our February 2018 newsletter)
  •  The Alaska Children’s Trust developed a set of tip sheets and posters, each focused on one of the five protective factors, and posted daily tips on social media throughout April.
  • The city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, declared April to be Strengthening Families Month, with a community celebration and recognition of prevention and family-strengthening activities

We are so gratified to see the focus on strengths and supporting families continuing to take hold across the country. CSSP believes that all children, youth and families deserve the chance to thrive. We also believe that goal will only be accomplished when we work with families as partners towards progress, acknowledging that all families have strengths and all families need support. We look forward to seeing this continued evolution of the prevention field, toward embracing parents as partners, recognizing family strengths and achieving better outcomes for children as a result. Learn more about our Strengthening Families work here and sign up for our newsletter here.

Cailin O'Connor is a senior associate at CSSP.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program administered through the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Adolescence was established in 2010 to identify and support diverse organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy across the United States. Its purpose was to develop and identify evidence-based programs aimed at promoting healthy choices and well-being in youth. The program also sought to inform future practice through ongoing program evaluations. 

Organizations receiving TPP program funds serve youth in communities, juvenile detention facilities, foster care and schools through government agencies, tribal organizations, non-profits and religious organizations. TPP Program grantees provide participating youth with comprehensive reproductive health education and focus on strategies to resist peer pressure and mitigate intimate-partner violence in addition to building healthy relationships with parents and providing career planning services.

From 2010 to 2014, 102 organizations were awarded five year TPP grants, serving over 500,000 youth nationally. Over the course of these five years, 41 independent evaluations were conducted that provided significant insight for the youth services field on the most effective programs. Through independent evaluations, the work of these organizations increased programmatic knowledge of effective prevention programming for youth that has helped move the field forward. Using the knowledge generated from these evaluations and the experiences of these agencies, the second round of TPP awards were made to build on the work from the first cohort and support replication of evidence-based programs. Grants were awarded to organizations that implemented evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, built the capacity of youth-serving organizations and developed technology-based and other innovative youth-informed programs. 

In order to ensure positive outcomes for youth, including avoiding unsafe sexual behaviors, it is important that policies focus on – and funding be invested in – programs with a proven track record in increasing access to high-quality, comprehensive services that meet the needs of youth. The TPP Program does just that, however in late June 2017, the current Administration – which favors abstinence-only policies – quietly cut the program, eliminating $213.6 million in funding for organizations combating teen pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy has been declining since 2007. Between 2010 and 2014 (during the first cohort of TPP grantees), we saw the national teen pregnancy rate drop by 29 percent. While this is important progress, teen pregnancy still remains relatively high – particularly for young people facing additional risk-factors. Adolescents who live in poverty, grow up in a single parent household or are in foster care are at an increased risk of having an unplanned pregnancy. Further, Hispanic and Black adolescents, who experience these risk factors at disproportionate rates, are twice as likely as their white peers to experience pregnancy by the age of 19. TPP grantees have worked to reduce these disparities by targeting their efforts to these most at-risk youth and by tailoring their programming to address specific community needs.   

This funding cut and other similar efforts ignore the positive impacts that these public and community based programs provide to the health and well-being of youth. We know that the promotion of healthy development, strong social connections and concrete supports increases positive outcomes for youth and their families. The elimination of the TTP Program showcases the Administration’s disregard for programming proven to reduce teen pregnancy and for investing in the health and well-being of our country’s children, youth and families. CSSP recognizes that healthy development and well-being in youth depend on their ability to postpone starting a family of their own until they are emotionally and financially prepared for the responsibilities that come with parenting. Eliminating support for programs that seek to give youth the information and resources they need to make informed decisions about their life runs counter to best practice, existing research and common sense. We call on advocates, communities and states to continue to invest in programs that we know work, promote healthy development in youth and support youth to thrive.

Alexis Grinstead is a policy analyst at CSSP.

In the Footsteps of Giants

  ·   By Robert Sege, MD, PhD, FAAP

Each of us is the product of our own experiences, and those who molded our personal and professional lives. This Memorial Day weekend, I found myself in the midst of encounters with my own role models in pediatrics. On Sunday, I saw T. Berry Brazelton, the kind and brilliant pediatrician whose books captured the imagination of parents in the late 20th century. Although he is now 99 years old, Berry walked in with a huge smile on his face, and promptly engaged in conversation with an eleven-year-old girl who wants to become a pediatrician.

Later this week, I will head up to Vermont for a celebration of the life of Paula Duncan, the guiding force (and I do mean force) behind the movement in pediatrics to move beyond screening for risk to assessing the positive in children and families, and partnering with parents to grow these assets.

These two leading lights amplify the themes that children need more than protection from adversity, they also need safe places to live, learn and play and to experience connection and support from the adults and peers who shape their worlds.

With the support of Casey Family Programs, I led a group of early childhood experts to produce a new report, Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences with HOPE (Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences). This report pulls together results from four separate population surveys. We learned that adults who recalled warm, nurturing relationships with their families and communities became healthier adults, even if they had multiple adversities in childhood.

While policymakers struggle to improve screening for risk and adversity, US parents and other adults already get it: children’s brains grow and develop in response to all their experiences, both adverse and positive. According to a 2016 population survey conducted by and reported for the first time in the HOPE report, there is wide consensus among American adults of all ethnicities about the importance of positive parenting practices, and the political will to move forward in supporting families.

HOPE complements other new approaches to supporting child development and preventing abuse and neglect. Looked at through the lens of the social-ecological model, they all fit: The CDC advocates policies that support families through its Essentials for Childhood initiative. CSSP’s Strengthening Families approach emphasizes the centrality of the family in the lives of children, and articulates a set of protective factors that families need to thrive. HOPE completes this triad by demonstrating that protective factors operate through affecting children’s experiences.

The HOPE report provides more data and background for an approach that balances concerns about trauma and adversity with one that promotes the development of healthy resilient children who have had the positive experiences we all need. Although the report and the information within it is new, my own relationships with my mentors – Paula Duncan and T. Berry Brazelton – remind me that we are in fact only adding to a solid foundation of understanding.


Dr. Robert Sege, MD, PhD, FAAP, is a practicing pediatrician, the Chief Medical Officer at Health Resources in Action, and a Senior Fellow at CSSP. 

As details about the President’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY 2018) budget have emerged, concerns about how the needs of families – particularly those facing the greatest barriers to opportunity – will be met in an equitable and effective manner have intensified. When the President’s proposed “skinny” budget was released in March with limited details, it was clear that the health and well-being of children and families were at-risk. Now, the full version of the proposed budget, “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” makes it even more apparent that the cuts proposed by the President would increase the challenges facing families who experience poverty, food insecurity, homelessness and other forms of compounding disadvantage – disproportionately children and families of color. 

The President’s proposed budget ignores key opportunities to advance equity and instead dramatically cuts – or eliminates entirely – funding for a number of essential safety net programs. All Americans lose in this budget proposal – only a small handful of wealthy households would stand to gain – but the budget is merciless in its treatment of low-income families. Overall, $1.7 trillion would be cut from mandatory domestic spending over 10 years. These devastating cuts are directed at programs that are vital pieces of the social safety net for families with low incomes, including $616 billion from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), $21 billion from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), $40 billion from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit, $72 billion from programs that support people with disabilities, and $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These programs provide crucial supports to families seeking pathways out of poverty and can mitigate the effects of poverty on children and youth as they grow and develop. The proposed cuts are targeted directly at families experiencing poverty, families of color and immigrant families, moving the budget in a direction that worsens inequities.

The threats posed to families by the President’s dangerous proposals are significant and far-reaching. Specifically, cuts to Medicaid, CHIP and SNAP will negatively impact the health and well-being of children and families and signal l a clear attack by the Administration on children and families, reducing access to and affordability of critical health services, increasing food insecurity and ultimately contributing to poorer outcomes for families. These cuts are particularly significant for children and families of color who, due to compounding effects of disadvantage, face greater threats to their health than white children and families.

Cuts to Medicaid: The President’s devastating proposal to eliminate $610 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years – in addition to the estimated $800 billion that would be eliminated from the program under the American Health Care Act (AHCA) – would shred an integral piece of America’s health care safety net. Medicaid serves as the primary source of health insurance for Americans with low-incomes, covering nearly 70 million people, over half of whom are children. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded access to Medicaid to nonelderly adults with low-incomes, further improving health care access and affordability for families experiencing poverty in the 31 states and District of Columbia that implemented this option.

Medicaid access has been particularly important for children of color given that it has, in coordination with CHIP, covered 54 percent of black children and 52 percent of Hispanic children in 2014, as well as 25 percent of Asian children and 26 percent of white children. Medicaid has reduced racial and ethnic disparities in access to primary and preventive care, which is crucial to closing gaps in health and developmental outcomes for children of color.

Medicaid has reduced racial and ethnic disparities in access to primary and preventive care, which is crucial to closing gaps in health and developmental outcomes for children of color.

The proposed Medicaid cuts would also be disastrous for children and families involved with child welfare systems, who depend on health care coverage and access to supports and services funded through Medicaid. A strong Medicaid program is critical for these young people as children and youth placed in foster care typically have more complex health care needs than their non-foster care peers.

Cuts to CHIP: The President proposes reducing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – which insures 5.6 million children – by at least 20 percent over the next two fiscal years, directly impacting the health of children across the country. Cuts would be achieved by eliminating an element of the ACA that increased by 23 percent the portion of the program’s costs that is paid for with federal money. This would greatly increase the burden upon states to fund CHIP at the same time that they are also being asked to pick up a greater portion of the costs for SNAP and Medicaid. Currently CHIP and Medicaid work together to ensure that children receive the health care they need, promoting healthy development. CHIP also effectively reduces disparities in coverage and health outcomes for young children of color.

The budget proposal would add additional eligibility restrictions to CHIP, creating a coverage gap for families with slightly higher incomes who nevertheless may not be able to afford health coverage for their children, particularly in high-cost regions. Federal funding would no longer be available to help cover children from families with incomes of more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow families with incomes higher than 300 percent of the poverty line to access CHIP, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. These families would all be at risk of losing health care coverage for their children, including access to preventive care.

Cuts to SNAP: The President’s proposed $193 billion reduction in spending for SNAP – equal to more than 25 percent of the program’s budget – will lead to higher rates of hunger and food insecurity, and poorer health for children and families. Food insecurity, or a lack of consistent access to enough, nutritious food, is a serious threat to the health and well-being of over 42 million people across the country and disproportionately affects families of color, households headed by a single woman,  households with young children and those who identify as LGBT. SNAP is currently serves one of the nation’s most effective public health and anti-poverty tools, offering nutrition assistance to 42 million families of every description.

The President’s budget would restrict eligibility for the program, impose work requirements beyond those already in place, and requiring states to begin matching 25 percent of the benefits their residents receive by 2023. SNAP has been an effective program for decades because of its flexible structure as a federally-funded entitlement that allows SNAP to respond to sudden changes in need, including spikes in unemployment and natural disasters. Shifting cost burdens to the states will dissuade states from ensuring all families who need SNAP benefits receive them. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that only about 14 percent of SNAP participants who are assumed to be able to work are unemployed, making the imposition of additional, redundant work requirements unnecessary, ineffective and burdensome for states to implement. The ultimate impact of these additional restrictions will be to discourage eligible households from participating in SNAP when they experience food insecurity, to the detriment of the health and well-being of children, youth and families across the nation.

SNAP has been an effective program for decades because of its flexible structure as a federally-funded entitlement that allows SNAP to respond to sudden changes in need, including spikes in unemployment and natural disasters.

Nutrition supports are also critical for youth who are seeking to gain stability as they move into adulthood, including youth aging out of foster care, who are significantly more likely to experience poverty, homelessness and food insecurity as they transition into adulthood without the same degree of support from family members that many of their peers have. Food insecurity at these pivotal points can contribute to poorer outcomes in health and education for young children and youth. Because food insecurity disproportionately impacts families of color, reducing federal supports for families experiencing food insecurity will also ultimately deepen inequity across the nation.


The President’s proposed FY 2018 budget is alarming in its disregard for the struggles of our country’s low-income families, and will likely lead to greater disparities for children and families of color. The proposed budget offers important insight into the Administration’s policy priorities signaling a lack of concern with the health and well-being of children and families and a disregard for equity. CSSP is redoubling its commitment to meeting the needs of families facing the most significant barriers, including families of color and others who on a daily basis experience inequitable access to opportunities for health and economic stability.  We will continue to monitor appropriations activities, uplift any negative impacts on children and families, and bring to light the ripple effects federal budget proposals will have in state and local budgets.

Family Stress, Family Strengths and Children's Well-Being

  ·   By Cailin O'Connor,

Recent efforts to cut back on social spending, dismantle existing programs and widen the gaps in the safety net for Americans are concerning on many levels. As a society, we should be doing more – not less – to help families living in or near poverty, families facing racial bias and micro-aggressions on a daily basis and families who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. When we fail to do so, parents, children and communities all suffer.

We actually know a lot about policy and programmatic strategies that can build on families’ strengths and promote children’s well-being. Unfortunately, many of the proposed policy and regulatory changes at the federal and state level this year threaten to increase stress levels for families who are already overloaded. From a child well-being perspective, there are immediate and obvious consequences of these policies, such as more children going to bed hungry, missing visits to the doctor or facing homelessness. But there are also longer-term and less apparent effects that are of equal concern. We know that children are affected by stress – their own stress and the stress of their parents.

We can’t afford the effects of cutting back on social spending, which will be seen in increased child abuse and neglect, behavioral problems and mental health challenges for today’s children and tomorrow’s adults. Instead, we should be investing in reducing family stress and helping families to build their strengths. We know how.

Among those who work with and on behalf of young children and their families, CSSP’s Strengthening Families protective factors framework provides a common language to describe five characteristics that all families need to support optimal child development and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. With the universal, research-based Strengthening Families framework, we can recognize how our own family’s strengths and challenges have shaped our lives – and we can see those strengths and challenges in other families, even when their race, culture, family structure or specific needs may be different from ours. The Strengthening Families approach then helps us to look at how various policies, programs, bureaucratic procedures and everyday actions affect families, through the lens of these protective factors.

Concrete support in times of need is the protective factor that tells us the most about the connection between child well-being and policies that affect families’ financial resources or the availability of supports in the community. We define concrete supports as “Access to concrete support and services that address a family’s needs and help minimize stress caused by challenges.” All families need this kind of support to varying degrees at different points in their lives, and these needs can sometimes be met through social networks. A friend who picks your child up from preschool when you have to work late is one form of “concrete support,” as is a family member who lends you money when you unexpectedly need to replace your refrigerator or furnace. (Social connections is another protective factor in our framework, because of the concrete and other forms of support we get from our social networks that help both parents and children thrive.) But many families rely on formal services or programs to meet at least some of their concrete needs, and many rely on benefits like paid sick leave which may or may not be provided by their employers depending on local and state laws. Families are likely to need more of the formal type of concrete supports when they are living in poverty, or living paycheck to paycheck. Families also need these supports to be delivered in a way that is respectful, accessible and culturally appropriate in order to meet their needs and reduce the stress that directly and indirectly affects the children.

Another closely related protective factor in the Strengthening Families framework is parental resilience, defined as “Managing stress and functioning well when faced with challenges, adversity and trauma.” Of course, concrete supports and social connections make it much easier for anyone to continue functioning well under stress, and for parents to continue providing the kind of nurturing care their children need even when times are tough. There is more to resilience than that – the ability to recognize the challenges we are facing and our own emotional responses, a belief in our ability to solve problems and that things will get better – but all of those things are easier to develop and hold on to when we have support for meeting our families’ basic needs. Resilience is also strengthened when parents feel recognized and respected for who they are, which includes celebrating the diversity of families and communities in this country and supporting them to find policy and community solutions that will work for them.

A substantial body of research shows us that a wide range of policies can have a positive or negative effect on the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, an outcome we should all care about and one that reflects how well we are helping families manage stress. The CDC’s recent technical package on Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect highlights policies and strategies that move the needle in the right direction. They include strengthening economic supports to families; changing social norms to support parents and positive parenting; providing quality care and education early in life; enhancing parenting skills to promote healthy child development; and intervening to lessen harms and prevent future risk. In one very concrete example reported by the CDC, the rate of hospitalizations for abusive head trauma (also known as shaken baby syndrome) among infants in California was found to drop following the introduction of paid family leave, while rates in other states without paid family leave rose over the same years. 

The evidence is overwhelming that children fare better when their parents are under less stress and have more support. This is why it is so concerning to hear about rising levels of family stress when I talk with service providers and system leaders around the country these days, and to know that many of the policy changes on the horizon will move us in the wrong direction. Families already stressed are getting fewer concrete supports when we know they need more. Parents’ resilience is being undercut as we make it harder for them to be the parents they want to be. Let’s all work together to find ways to build family strengths, starting with investing in supports for families rather than cutting them back.


Cailin O'Connor is a senior associate at CSSP.


Questions about the so-called preschool “fade-out” effect are once again stirring up opinion on the merits of investing in early care and education. Recent articles with misleading headlines seemingly call into question the value of preschool programs for low-income children, though deep into the articles the authors defend early care and education as a worthy investment. Many readers will recognize sensational headlines for what they are: “click bait,” but in the current political and policy climate, when it comes to investing in the very young, this editorial practice, we believe, is both irresponsible and dangerous.

The “fade-out” argument, in actuality, grossly misleads readers to lump findings from research studies of programs of various quality, dosage and populations into one question: “is investing in early childhood education worth it”? On the contrary, considering the extent of the nation’s resource and opportunity gap for millions of young children and their families, the only question worth asking is, “is our investment enough?”

As the work of economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman and others show, there is an overwhelming body of quality recent evidence that investments in comprehensive supports and services for economically and socially marginalized children and their families yield significant positive impacts for individuals and society. The evidence also suggests that benefits are greater and longer-lasting the earlier in a child’s life an intervention starts. Indeed, according to Heckman, “[t]he research shows that high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent per year return on investment—a rate substantially higher than the 7 to 10 percent return previously established for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds. Significant gains are realized through better outcomes in education, health, social behaviors, and employment.”

To be fair, it should be no surprise to find evidence that a single year of pre-kindergarten instruction, even if it is of high quality, is not sufficient to “inoculate” against the future challenges many children face in elementary school and beyond — challenges that are largely the result of decades of community disinvestment, racial discrimination, and educational and economic disparities.

Skeptics also can rightfully call into question any investment that is built on a promise of large returns but that does not, in fact, sufficiently fund interventions that match the original program’s design. To think otherwise is unfair to the participating children, hardworking teachers and staff, and the families and taxpayers who pay for it.

But the answer is not to defund pre-kindergarten programs. Even the authors of the recent articles say so once you get into the fine print. Rather, the answers lie in paying attention to, and investing in, programs that incorporate strategies to address the contributing factors to successful interventions. To name a few, this list includes:

  • Respecting and supporting parents in their role as their children’s primary nurturers and teachers, as advocates for their children and their families, and as leaders and decision-makers within programs and within their communities;
  • Parental choice and continuous access to high-quality, birth-to-five early care and education options that meet families’ needs;
  • Comprehensive, two-generation supports for children and parents that address health, nutrition, basic needs and family economic stability;
  • Adherence to high-quality standards and developmentally appropriate curricula;
  • Highly skilled and adequately compensated staff;
  • Positive, strengths-based relationships among and between children, families and staff; and
  • Culturally and linguistically inclusive practice.

In the current political climate when every domestic program is under intense scrutiny and the threat of budget cuts, researchers and advocates alike must be crystal clear in their arguments and evidence. We must all avoid clouding the conversation with sensationalized rhetoric, and must call out inconsistencies and misconstrued arguments when we see them. To do any less threatens decades of progress toward leveling the playing field for families and communities that have been historically marginalized and threatens the advances we have begun to make in providing successful interventions for young children and their families.

CSSP stands firm in its commitment to supporting innovation and evidence-informed approaches that support children within the context of their families and communities. We call on researchers, advocates, policymakers and civic leaders to join us in continuing our collective efforts to promote policy, practice and systems change in order to create opportunities that promote well-being and economic success for all children and families. 


Anna Lovejoy is a senior associate at CSSP. 

In recent weeks, CSSP's pursuit of its mission to promote the safety, security and well-being of all children, youth, families and communities, especially those who are systematically left behind, has required additional vigilance and timely and visible action. As Congress moves to dismantle the current structure for providing health care to low-income children and families, once again, we must speak up.

A range of proposals are currently being considered to restructure the foundations of health insurance coverage for low-income children and families, including changes to Medicaid (Title XIX), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These three health care financing programs provide coverage for millions of poor families and children and the consequences of change are likely to be very significant for their well-being. 

In a new brief series, we highlight the potential impacts of proposed changes on our most vulnerable populations of families and children and highlight several concrete, actionable policy strategies that policymakers at the federal and state level can take to ensure children and families continue to have quality health care and health insurance through Medicaid, CHIP and the ACA.

The two briefs released today highlight the vital role that Medicaid, CHIP and the ACA play in reducing health disparities, improving coverage and achieving equity in health outcomes for young children and families and children and families involved in the child welfare system. On our website, you will also find information on the race equity implications of restructuring Medicaid and CHIP.

We will continue to issue policy briefs, statements and blogs in response to attacks on equity, basic rights and well-being. These are continually evolving issues, and our analysis and specific recommendations will change as we learn new information. Please continue to follow us on social media (@CtrSocialPolicy and and visit our website at

Download and read the new briefs Promoting Healthy Outcomes for Young Children and Their Families: Implications of Proposals to Restrict Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Protect Medicaid: Critical Opportunities to Support Children, Youth and Families Involved with Child Welfare.


Download and read The Racial Implications of Proposals to Restrict Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).


Shadi Houshyar is a senior associate and project director at CSSP.

This is the first in a series of blogposts that the Center for the Study of Social Policy is launching to recognize, document, share and celebrate the innovations taking place at the community level to promote healthy child development and support families. We are delighted to kick off this series with a post by Joan Lombardi, the widely recognized expert on early childhood development and a longstanding leader behind the movement to create communities that care about young children and families. Over the next year, we will be hearing from other national experts as well as mayors and local leaders doing pioneering work, foundations that are seeding innovation, and researchers who confirm the urgency of using expanding knowledge now to make a difference for this generation of children. - Frank Farrow, Director 

Something is happening across the United States, and in a growing number of communities around the world. Backed by the science that recognizes the importance of the early years to long-term health, learning and behavior, the movement to focus on early childhood development has continued to grow. The innovative edge of this movement goes beyond a single program; instead it leans in to involve the whole community in efforts to help children and families learn and thrive.

These initiatives are emerging from small neighborhoods, to big cities, from rural communities to statewide efforts to promote local action. While they may reflect a variety of names, they often share a common goal: to create communities that are responsive to the needs of young children and their families — families who today are too often struggling alone, without traditional supports so important to the success of all of us.

A number of key interrelated concepts are driving this movement, among them: 

  • The ecological systems model that recognizes that children grow up in families, which are influenced by the communities around them and in turn by policies at all levels.
  • The two generation [i] movement that acknowledges the importance of empowering the adults in children’s lives, which in turn affects healthy child development.
  • The life-course approach to service delivery which calls for us to start early and assure continuity across the early years and beyond.
  • The concept of nurturing care that integrates health, nutrition, early learning, responsive caregiving and security and safety.[ii]
  • The belief in the empowerment of families and mutual respect for the richness of cultural, ethnic and racial diversity.
  • The idea that we can impact child development by reducing risk factors (including poverty) and increasing protective factors.
  • The movement towards collective impact, rather than focusing on impact from a single program.
  • The use of population-based data to drive towards results. 

So if a mayor or other municipal leader, or a group of concerned citizens or a business or foundation official, asks what can we do together to make a difference for our youngest children and their families, we need a way to get started. While there is no neat formula for making change happen, I offer the following steps forward for discussion, debate and dialogue; each community will have to find its own unique direction.

Getting Ready

The best way forward is to just jump in — call a meeting, demonstrate leadership, begin to vision how the community can be more supportive to the families with young children. You can start by:

1. Bringing together a planning group across sectors (health, education, family support)
2. Assuring strong and meaningful community participation
3. Defining the mission and setting goals
4. Mapping community assets

Assuring a pathway to success

We are gaining new insights into the need to assure continuous and high quality services for young children and families from the prenatal period through the primary grades. Providing good maternal and child health, nutrition and mental health services; assuring family support; developing early childhood services from home visiting to quality child care, from Early Head Start to Head Start – taken together, these can all contribute to healthy child development and in turn to success later in life. But families and services do not live in isolation.  They need an infrastructure of support to help assure quality, to make connections, to track results. In your planning efforts, consider:

5. Establishing a focal point or hubs to help early childhood providers assure quality services to children and support for families, as well as support for the the early childhood workforce.
6. Creating a mechanism to connect families to each other and to services, and provide ongoing networks of support.
7. Promoting strong linkages between community early childhood services and schools that are ready to support young children and families.
8. Developing integrated data systems and community data dashboards to track results and inform improvements and expansion

Reaching out to the broader community

Research tells us that what makes a difference to families goes beyond their ability to access services.  We know now that the overall climate of a community – the social, economic and physical context – has an impact on children and families. We have to involve everyone in a community to make a difference. We all have to row in the same direction by:

9. Strengthening the social fabric of the community (creating social networks religious institutions, civic organizations, businesses, law enforcement, higher education institutions).
10. Utilizing physical spaces to support young children and families (places to play and learn).
11. Assuring ongoing efforts to support family and community economic development (housing, transportation, asset development, job opportunities).
12. Promoting new financing mechanisms and advocating for state and national policies that support young children and families. 

In closing, we hear a lot these days about what divides us. This movement to create “caring communities” is something that can unite us. It can heal, and it can bring us together towards a common goal: strong families and healthy, happy and successful children.


1 For more information on the two generation approach see Ascend at the Aspen Institute.
2 Advancing Early Childhood Development from Science to Scale: An Executive Summary for the Lancet’s Series, 2016. 2016

Poverty in early childhood is a pervasive problem in the U.S., with 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 experiencing poverty in 2015. Among those young children, half experienced deep poverty, meaning their families lived below 50 percent of the poverty threshold. Children of color are disproportionately likely to be exposed to the material deprivation and reduced access to opportunity that comes with poverty – 37.4 percent of black children and 30.2 percent of Hispanic or Latino children under age 5 lived in poverty in 2015, compared to 12.8 percent of their white peers – contributing to racial inequities in health, learning and other measures of well-being. 

The cumulative effects of poverty on health, learning and social emotional development are increasingly well-understood, but not yet effectively addressed, leaving policymakers with a number of opportunities in the early childhood sphere to take action to reduce poverty and mitigate its effects. By capitalizing on these opportunities, we can better support families with young children and tackle both the causes and consequences of early childhood poverty. 

How Can We Better Support Young Children & their Families?

The consequences of poverty in early childhood can be prevented and mitigated through the provision of high-quality, accessible and responsive programs and services, but to address the root causes of poverty, a broader shift in policy is also needed. Policymakers can focus on two key areas to better support young children and their families: 

Build economic opportunities and promote economic stability for parents and caregivers

Within this area, early childhood policy makers can seek to support parents and caregivers to better support children – for example, by improving alignment between programs supporting children and caregivers. On the ground, this can look like better alignment of child care subsidies with workforce development programs for caregivers. Currently, many state policies make it difficult for a child to receive a child care subsidy while the child’s caregiver is participating in a workforce development program or pursuing an education. Both children and parents lose in this equation – children may lose access to high quality early care and education programs, while a caregiver may be forced to choose between retaining a child care subsidy and pursuing education or training to improve their economic opportunities. 

Additionally, policymakers can support and advocate for family-supportive tax and work policies. In tax policy, this can look like adopting or strengthening state Earned Income Tax Credits and strengthening the child tax credit to better support families with young children. Family-supportive work policies can look like higher minimum wage laws, protections for pregnant workers, paid family and medical leave policies and fair/flexible scheduling practices. These local, state and federal level policies improve opportunities for all children and families to thrive. 

Build a high-quality system of supports and services for families with young children 

Within this key area, early childhood policymakers can ensure that programs are high-quality, accessible and a good fit for the poorest families. To use early care and education as an example, high-quality early care and education can mitigate the effects of poverty on a child’s development, but research shows that children experiencing poverty have reduced access to high-quality early care and education programs. Policymakers can work with local early childhood service provider to promote equitable access to quality early care and education for families living in poverty, and particularly for families living in deep poverty.

To learn more about these strategies to support young children and their families, read CSSP’s new policy brief, Supporting Young Children: Addressing Poverty, Promoting Opportunity and Advancing Equity in Policy.

To learn more about the impact of poverty on young children’s health, learning and development, read CSSP’s new fact sheet, Poverty in Early Childhood

Melanie Meisenheimer is a program and research assistant at CSSP.

Exploring How to Measure the Impact of Early Childhood Systems

  ·   By Cailin O'Connor

When early childhood systems function well, they can enhance the effectiveness of programs and services in the community, while ensuring better experiences for children and families and improving outcomes such as school readiness and optimal child development. However, documenting the impact of systems-level activities has been an ongoing challenge for communities.

Members of CSSP’s Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network for Communities (EC-LINC) are engaged in ongoing discussions about how to document and measure the impact of aligning and coordinating services and building the infrastructure of an early childhood system. This includes exploring questions like:

  • How can we distinguish between the effects of programs and the effects of the systems those programs are part of?
  • What data is available to gauge the well-being of all children and families in the community, and not just those who participate in specific programs?
  • What is the added value of program alignment and coordination within an early childhood system?
  • How does the coordination of the early childhood system affect families’ experiences within that system, and outcomes like health and school readiness for their children?
  • How can we ensure that our early childhood system-building efforts benefit the most vulnerable children and families in the community? How can the early childhood system help to reduce disparities between groups and promote racial and social equity? 

The first product to come out of these ongoing conversations is now available: A report from an EC-LINC Learning Lab that brought six communities together around the broad topic of Measuring the Impact of Early Childhood Systems. This issue brief defines four hallmarks of early childhood systems – family experience; quality services; safe, supportive and equitable communities; and well-functioning and sustainable systems – and describes examples of community-level evaluation related to each of them from the participating communities.

Stay tuned for additional products as these conversations continue.

Cailin O'Connor is a senior policy analyst at CSSP.


An Equitable Child Care Agenda

  ·   By Rhiannon Reeeves

Today’s families are working hard. However, while nearly 70 percent of poor children live in families with at least one working parent, stagnant wages, eroding labor standards and growing inequality are preventing poor families from meeting even their most basic needs, despite their efforts. This is amplified for mothers of color who are disproportionately impacted by wage inequality and wage stagnation. For families with young children, balancing work while negotiating the demands of parenting and managing the cost of necessities such as diapers, formula, health care and child care expenses create unique stressors in the lives of the entire family. For poor families, these stressors are compounded by the high cost of housing and food, low-wage jobs that lack flexibility, lack of access to transportation and additional daily life-challenges that may arise. 

More than 16 million children in the U.S. are currently living in poverty. Young children, particularly children of color, are the most likely to live in poor or low-income households. For young children, the toxic stress that often arises from conditions of chronic adversity, such as poverty, can have a significant detrimental impact on early brain development. This can have lasting consequences for their life-long health, academic success and productivity as working adults. The science of brain development points to the importance of safe, stable and nurturing relationships and positive interactions between children and their parents and other caregiving adults. Research also shows that parental protective factors, when present in a family, mitigate or eliminate risk and actively enhance early childhood development. As such, multi-generational approaches that aim to help families build protective factors have the potential to improve outcomes and positively impact families for generations. Programs and policies taking a multi-generational approach are not new, however there are many missed opportunities for policies that take into account the needs of both children and parents and the circumstances in which families live. Additionally, when policies and programs designed for families fail to address the intersecting challenges associated with race, income, gender, citizenship or immigration status the resulting child and parent outcomes may fall far short of the intended mark.

High-quality child care serves as a multi-generational resource enabling parents or guardians to work, go to school or attend training activities while their young children are cared for in quality early learning environments supporting their healthy growth and development. Parents of young children are able to meet their caregiving responsibilities more efficiently when they know their children are being cared for in safe, enriching environments. Additionally, research shows that offering high-quality early childhood and school readiness programs can improve educational outcomes for low-income and cultural and linguistic minority children. 

On average, 61 percent of the nation’s children age zero to five and their families regularly participate in child care and early learning and development programs. The remaining children and families are either cared for in their homes or participate in more informal care arrangements or unlicensed care that is not always of high-quality – most likely due to the high cost of child care which often poses significant challenges for families, particularly those who are poor and low-income. Child care costs vary from state to state and are contingent on factors such as the age of the child and the type of care used (center-based or family child care home). In the Northeast and Midwest, the cost of full-time center-based care for two children is the highest single household expense and is surpassed only by the cost of housing in the South and the West. When poor families, who are disproportionately people of color, are able to access child care, it is too often low-quality, with low-income parents of children age five or younger being more likely to report concerns about their child’s learning, development or behavior than their peers in higher-income families. 

When coordinated in a way that supports both young children and the working adults providing for them, high-quality child care is particularly well-suited to meet the needs of low-income families. Additionally, center-based and family child care providers who work with families on a daily basis are natural partners in helping these families build protective factors that mitigate or eliminate risk and actively enhance child and family well-being. In order to bolster these positive outcomes and better support parents in the workforce, policy should ensure coordinated, high-quality child care programing that meets the demands of families with the most significant needs. A number of potential strategies could be used to help improve existing child care programs and ensure that they can better meet the needs of young children and their families. CSSP recommends the following: 

  • Expand the supply of accessible, affordable, high-quality child care for low-income families, particularly those living in underserved areas or in areas with high concentrations of poverty;
  • Target outreach efforts that prioritize the enrollment of homeless children and families and children and families involved in the child welfare systems;
  • Pursue expenditures that seek to advance equity by developing and sustaining early childhood education systems aimed at improving outcomes for poor and low-income children, children of color and children who are dual language learners;
  • Intentionally target outreach and consumer education activities to ensure that low-income families of color are informed of and have access to high-quality child care;
  • Partner with, support and invest in parents, communities and providers in ways that are linguistically and culturally responsive to diverse populations; and
  • Invest in the recruitment, training and retention of a qualified, effective and culturally responsive child care workforce. 

A key component to a family’s success is addressing the needs of both children and their caregivers together. High-quality child care serves as a unique means to equitably accomplish this goal by meeting the needs of families facing the most significant barriers in a holistic way. The recommendations listed above serve as a starting point to spur implementation strategies aimed at serving these families. CSSP’s brief, An Equitable, Multigenerational Approach to Finalizing FY 2016-2018 CCDF State Plans and an upcoming compendium of briefs on the 20th Anniversary of TANF, to be released later this month, highlight ways in which states can leverage current policy opportunities to implement these strategies.

Rhiannon Reeves is a policy and research assistant at CSSP.

In a Promise Neighborhood, community members, organizations and public agencies build partnerships with a goal of ensuring that every child is healthy, ready for school, lives in a safe community and has access to excellent schools and educational opportunities. In a Promise Neighborhood, every child matters—from cradle to career. To illustrate the "cradle-to-career" approach used in the federal Promise Neighborhoods program, CSSP, one of several technical assistance providers for the program, has developed a series of videos titled “Pipeline Profiles.” This series is made up of videos that highlight how three Promise Neighborhoods are building three different pieces of their continuum of solutions:

The series is designed to offer a glimpse into what it takes to support children from cradle-to-career in diverse communities across the United States. Check out this first video profile highlighting some of the work that the Berea College Promise Neighborhood is doing to create a strong early childhood segment of their cradle-to-career pipeline. The Berea College Promise serves children in three rural counties in Eastern Kentucky.



Stay tuned for the next installment of the “Pipeline Profiles” series exploring how the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood is partnering with individual schools and a school district to improve academic results for its young people.

The diagram highlights how the key elements—collaborations, resources, financing, policy and legislation, and data—fit together to support the common vision and sustain culture, behavior, policy, and practice changes.The Center for the Study of Social Policy is one of four partners leading the Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams (QIC-CT), an effort to support jurisdictions and states with tools to address the challenges faced by families in the child welfare system and to ensure that infants, toddlers and families have access to high-quality, evidence-based services.

Grounded in the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Court Team (SBCT) approach, QIC-CT sites around the country are working to institutionalize a court team model in daily practice by changing policies, adopting new practices and integrating services and resources that will sustain new and more effective ways of serving families with infants and toddlers.

The QIC-CT recently released a brief to help sites plan for sustaining the core elements of the SBCT approach, given the investment required by a broad network of stakeholders to successfully implement the new approach. The new brief includes a framework for sustainability that lays out key elements, including collaborations, resources, financing, policy and legislation and data.

To learn more, read: Sustaining New Approaches in Child Welfare: A Framework for Sustainability for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams.

FY 2016-2018 CCDF State Plans Due Today

  ·   By Rhiannon Reeves,

Today is the deadline for states to submit FY 2016 - 2018 CCDF state plans.

On Nov. 19, 2014 President Barack Obama signed into law the bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014. This bill strengthened the child care subsidies dual role as a key early childhood education program and work support for low-income families—intended to improve the health, safety and quality of child care while making it less burdensome for families to access stable child care assistance.

CCDBG is the primary federal funding source for the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) program in states. CCDF provides child care subsidies to low-income working families, and in most states, is also the primary funding source for the child care system and infrastructure, as well initiatives for improving child care quality. Under the CCDBG Act of 2014, states are required to develop plans that identify how they will spend the federal funds they receive. In an effort to provide state administrators with greater opportunity to develop high-quality subsidy systems that serve young children and families and the communities in which they live, in the spring of 2015 the federal Office of Child Care (OCC) extended the submission deadline for the FY 2016-2018 CCDF State Plans.

Today, states must submit their finalized biennium plans outlining the ways in which they plan to increase the quality of child care in their state and enhance access to low-income families with young children. Over the course of implementation, states will receive guidance from the OCC aimed at making CCDBG significantly more responsive to families’ needs, reducing undue burdens to families and focusing on information sharing and family engagement. The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) recently submitted comments to the OCC in support of this effort.

CCDF State Plan RecommendationsWe also released An Equitable, Multigenerational Approach to Finalizing FY 2016-2018 CCDF State Plans, which provides states with a number of important considerations that have the potential to positively impact poor and low-income families and advance equity. CSSP specifically recommends that states consider incorporating policies and actions to:

  1. Make high-quality child care and early education programs accessible and affordable for low-income families, particularly those living in underserved areas or in areas with high concentrations of poverty.
  2. Reduce churn in early childhood subsidy systems by reducing the documentation, notification and disruption burden on families caused by interim reporting.
  3. Ensure eligibility and continuity of care for homeless children and children involved in child welfare systems.
  4. Focus on improving outcomes for low-income children and families of color by developing and sustaining early childhood education systems that advance equity.
  5. Partner with, support and invest in parents through targeted consumer outreach and parental and family engagement efforts in ways that are linguistically and culturally responsive to diverse populations.
  6. Use existing funds through the quality set-aside to invest in the recruitment, training and retention of a qualified, effective and culturally responsive child care workforce.

High-quality child care has long been a multigenerational resource that enables parents or guardians to work, go to school or attend training activities while their young children are cared for in quality early learning environments. Administrators should aim to maximize the CCDF program’s potential as an equitable, multigenerational approach to improving the lives of low-income working families. Through the FY 2016-2018 CCDF Plans and implementation process that follows, states have the opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of young children and families by promoting continuity of care, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children and families, empowering parents as consumers and engaging families as partners in the care and development of their children.

Rhiannon Reeves is a policy and research assistant at CSSP.

Early Learning in Promise Neighborhoods“Early Learning in Promise Neighborhoods” is a new guide examining strategies that federal Promise Neighborhood implementation grantees are using to ensure that “all children enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school.” As one of the technical assistance partners for the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program, CSSP developed the guide as a resource for Promise Neighborhoods grantees and for similar cradle-to-career initiatives around the country.

Promise Neighborhoods is one of the Education Department’s signature place-based initiatives. Grantees are supported in building a pipeline of services, programs and supports designed to improve outcomes for children and youth in distressed communities from throughout their early years, school years and beyond. The Promise Neighborhood program is designed around 10 results that each community aims to achieve, including that students be proficient in core academic subjects and that they are ready to learn and excel when they first start school.

To ensure that students and families start off ready for school success, Promise Neighborhoods work to improve a number of indicators, such as the number and proportion of children who:

  • have access to a “medical home,” or a place where they usually go, other than an emergency room, when they are sick or in need of advice about their health
  • demonstrate age-appropriate functioning
  • participate in center-based or formal home-based early learning settings or programs, such as Head Start, child care or preschool

The new early learning guide offers profiles describing how three Promise Neighborhoods are fostering early learning in their communities. Each profile provides an overview of the Promise Neighborhood’s early learning network, essential early learning components and challenges they’ve faced in implementing their strategies. Highlights from these profiles:

Northside Achievement ZoneNorthside Achievement Zone – Located in north Minneapolis, the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) is serving a predominantly African American community that is also home to many Hmong, Latino and Somali families. Data show that most children living in NAZ lack formal early childhood education and begin school already behind academically. NAZ’s leaders developed three critical goals for their early learning network to:

      1. strengthen parent intent and action to navigate the complex, myriad child care resources available
      2. ensure a sufficient number of slots in high-quality early learning programs while helping families to access those slots
      3. conduct or refer young children to early screenings to identify needs and drive supports 

Berea College Promise NeighborhoodsBerea College Promise Neighborhood – The Berea College Promise Neighborhood is the first rural Promise Neighborhoods implementation grantee. Spanning three Kentucky counties, the Promise Neighborhood has worked to make services more geographically accessible for families in the region. Only about one-third of young children attend formal early care and education programs. Early on in their work, Berea College Promise Neighborhood made a strategic decision to support and to connect existing early childhood programs in the neighborhood footprint with quality improvement priorities of the Kentucky Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and the new Unbridled Learning Accountability Model for Kentucky public schools and districts.

Hayward Promise NeighborhoodHayward Promise Neighborhood – The Hayward Promise Neighborhood is located in a community in South Hayward, California. About half of all residents are Hispanic and 63 percent speak a language other than English at home. When the program began, only 18 percent of children attended early learning programs, and there were long waiting lists for the few public preschool classrooms within the neighborhood. The Community Child Care Council of Alameda County leads Hayward Promise Neighborhood’s Early Learning Network in partnership with numerous Promise Neighborhood funded and unfunded partners. The network brings together existing agencies to develop a common framework, help families find services and identify gaps. It is also trying to improve collaboration among organizations working in the neighborhood.

    1. strengthen parent intent and action to navigate the complex, myriad child care resources available
    2. ensure a sufficient number of slots in high-quality early learning programs while helping families to access those slots
    3. conduct or refer young children to early screenings to identify needs and drive supports 

The guide concludes with a discussion of three common “neighborhood success factors” that contributed to the emergent success of these three Promise Neighborhoods grantees:

  • Strong and trusting relationships among initiative leaders and partners, program staff and participating families
  • Institutional cultures that promote collaborative partnerships and value the perspectives of families, providers and community voices
  • Alignment with state and federal priorities and resources

To learn more about how these three Promise Neighborhoods are supporting early learning, download the guide here.

Anand Sharma is a senior program analyst at CSSP.

Announcing the Accelerating Change Award

  ·   By Tashira Halyard,

Accelerating Change Award

The Center for the Study of Social Policy seeks to honor initiatives that reach diverse populations of young women and girls of color and create opportunities for their well-being and success. These innovations disrupt the trajectory experienced by young women and girls of color from the compounding and often negative effects of gender and racial discrimination, personal and community violence and involvement in foster care, juvenile justice and other intervening public systems.

The Accelerating Change Award will celebrate the most compelling and creative interventions making a difference in young women and girls’ everyday lives. Selected recipients will join a network of like-minded partners to share ideas and help accelerate positive change and promising futures for women and girls of color nationally.

Programs, initiatives and agencies using innovative strategies to serve and advocate on behalf of girls and young women of color between ages 9-21 are encouraged to apply. Examples of eligible applicants are:

  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Grassroots and community-based initiatives
  • Public agencies and intervening systems
  • Schools and universities

Applications are due on March 11, 2016 and will be reviewed by CSSP’s Accelerating Change Award team by March 4th. After the initial review, the team will contact the finalists to arrange an interview via conference call between March 9th and March 23rd. Applicants will be notified of their selection by March 30th.

Visit for more information.

Focusing on Families to Achieve Results for Children

  ·   By Judy Langford,

Judy Langford at the recent Get Georgia Reading Summit

Grade level reading starts before birth. Reading is significantly shaped by a child’s earliest experiences, experiences that happen in their families. Families are the primary source of learning and development for young children, long before they go to a classroom, long before they say words or learn letters, long before they pick up a book. Families—and the communities where they live, play, work and worship—overwhelmingly shape every young child’s experiences and opportunities 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  

Thus, families are the most important partner in changing results for children and are powerful agents of development for their children. 

But their capabilities to do their job are heavily influenced by their access to systems, like health care and education, which provide the basic services all families need to promote healthy development for their children. These multiple partners provide help to families, but sometimes the communication and collaboration among the key players is not what it could be. Programs and services may see things one way; families another, and communities still another. 

One way to align the conversation among the key players is through adopting a common framework so that systems and services can communicate and cooperate more effectively, and to align their existing work while providing quality services in their own sector. Using a “protective factors” template to shape an effective approach is an emerging strategy nationwide in more than 30 states, including Georgia, and across different systems, including early care and education, mental health, child abuse prevention, child welfare and home visiting. This approach starts by focusing on family strengths – those same characteristics that are shown through multiple research studies to reduce risk and promote healthy development. It doesn’t ignore risk, trauma and adverse experiences, but when it comes to doing something about those negatives, a protective factors approach helps individuals, communities and systems focus on what to do both to reduce risk and promote healthy development. 

The overwhelming response from families when service providers and systems start this way is enthusiastic participation. Families see clearly that the focus is not blaming or stigmatizing or focusing on deficits, but helping them build on their own strengths and meet the challenges of trauma or adverse experiences.

The other key partner that provides significant support to families is the community where they live. Communities are the life that surrounds families and young children on a daily basis. Service providers and systems, even though they play an essential role for families and communities, are only a small part of the community world that families and children experience—vital when they’re needed but most of the time just a little part of a child’s experience. 

Communities need safe places for children to play and for families to connect with each other, sidewalks and transportation that works for families, access to healthy food for everyone, opportunities for learning and jobs and for striving toward success.

The community’s capacity to support the overall environment that families need for their young children is critical to the family’s success. And the community itself needs the leadership and energy of young families to make it work.

Community opportunities and services that help families support their children’s development can be even more effective if they do their work in alignment with what families themselves need and want. That doesn’t require changing everything but it does mean changing perspectives about families and working more intentionally to engage families in new ways.

Some school systems, for example, have completely changed their planning, training and curricula by flipping just one perspective. Schools usually ask: How will we know if the children entering our schools are ready? A different question that gets very different answers is:  How will we know if our schools are ready for the children who are coming? It requires the schools to focus on knowing much more about the children—and their families—who will be entering their classrooms and to make their plans to match what those children need to succeed in school.

Families are key to improving results for young children. The challenge for communities and service providers alike is to develop and sustain powerful, authentic partnerships with parents, including partnerships that:

  • Acknowledge and support families own wishes and beliefs
  • Build on the strengths parents bring
  • Shape the community and systems of support for families
  • Create a new future for states and cities through the young children who depend on all of us

Judy Langford is an associate director and senior fellow at CSSP. This blog is based on a panel presentation she participated in at the Get Georgia Reading Summit.


cssp ec-linc nlc join forces to support early learning communities


The Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network for Communities (EC-LINC), based at the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), has embarked on an exciting new joint effort with the National League of Cities (NLC) to help local communities become “Early Learning Communities.”

Early Learning Communities are founded on the idea that the experiences and opportunities that children have in the early years of life are key predictors of their future well-being and academic success. Positive, nurturing interactions with parents and caregivers, good nutrition and health care, affordable housing and safe neighborhoods and high-quality early care and education all build the foundation for success in school and in life.  

With new support from the Bezos Family Foundation, CSSP and NLC will collaboratively work with 16 cities and counties to test innovations, learn from one another and share findings so that the network of places committed to being Early Learning Communities can grow, contributing to the Bezos Family Foundation’s aim to create an “Early Learning Nation” by the year 2025.

Over the coming year, this funding will allow CSSP and NLC to draw on the experience and expertise of their network of cities and counties to develop an “ELC Playbook”, describing what it takes to launch, build and sustain Early Learning Communities.

The project will also identify indicators to help communities measure the impact of their early childhood systems. Other activities will include shared exploration of particular challenges in building an early childhood system; joint implementation of innovative strategies; and development of additional tools and resources for other communities to use in becoming an Early Learning Community.

Learn more about EC-LINC here:

For more information contact: Cailin O’Connor:

defining toxic stress

In recent years, important attention has been paid to the concept of toxic stress and its impact on development. As scientific understanding of toxic stress grows, communities across the country are finding ways to prevent and respond to toxic stress in the lives of community members, particularly young children and their families. Six such communities are working together in the EC-LINC Learning Lab on Community Responses to Toxic Stress, facilitated by the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Building on the widely used definition of toxic stress from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, the Learning Lab has worked to define what toxic stress is, why it is of concern and how communities can respond.

Click here to read more.

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.@CtrSocialPolicy defines #toxicstress from a community perspective.

baby at library with book

As a national organization that works to ensure that low-income children learn, develop and thrive in strong families and safe and healthy communities, we at the Center for the Study of Social Policy celebrate the new attention to the earliest years of a child’s life.  Unlikely partners – economists, brain scientists, elected officials on either side of the aisle, and especially governors and mayors – are recognizing that investments supporting healthy development pre-natally through 3rd grade pay dividends that appear early and last life-long.  

That’s why we were delighted that the Los Angeles Times reported findings from a study on cognitive and language skill gaps in the article “Literacy gap between Latino and white toddlers starts early, study shows,” on April 2. Language gaps appear early and they are one of many factors that propel subsequent economic disparities.  However, we were dismayed that the same article came close to drawing other wrong and potentially harmful conclusions from the study.  In particular, we take issue with the article’s characterization of nurturing home environments as “warm and fuzzy” in a way that – hopefully inadvertently – diminishes precisely those qualities that can also accelerate achievement and lifelong health.  It is simply not true that home environments offer little or even less in developing children’s cognitive assets.  

A “nurturing and supportive” home is precisely what all young children need in order to maximize learning.   Nurturing relationships in a supportive environment produce gains in brain development and cognitive growth as well as the skills and strengths required to form one’s own relationships, navigate complex interactions with others and thus survive and thrive in the world. Developing brains need parents and attuned caregivers who interact with them affectionately and sensitively. Extensive research, expanding every day from multiple sources, shows that nurturing relationships literally “wire” the young brain for learning, memory, logic, reasoning, socialization and executive functions such as the ability to regulate emotions and make decisions. It is close parent-child bonds and other continual loving interactions that set the course for the child’s sense of well-being and ability to navigate the world, overcome challenges and develop resilience that can buffer the adverse experiences and even early trauma that science now tells us so much about.   Recent studies tell us that early maternal nurturance can also have lifelong impact on physical health, reducing the risk of chronic conditions such as coronary disease and diabetes as well as early death.

Brains are built over time.  The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child tells us that the sum of children’s experiences interact with genetic make-up to form the architecture of a young child’s brain.  The active ingredients in this process are many, but the loving attachment of a parent to her child, the day-to-day interaction when reading together or sitting on a bus, and the positive experiences when day-to-day events are “stretched” to become brain-building moments – these could as easily be described as the application of hard, laboratory science as the (usually dismissive) products of “warm and fuzzy” home life.

Thanks to explosive breakthroughs in neuroscience and epigenetics, as combined with the wisdom of program providers and parents, we know enough now to help create these positive, loving relationships and the other protective factors that promote healthy development.  And this is most certainly an area where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

So, knowledge is not the problem:  the challenge is translating it and getting it into the hands of parents and those of us who care for young children and want the best for them.  There are many promising efforts to do this.  Locally, First 5 LA recently dedicated its next five years of work to supporting and building the capacity of parents in exactly the ways described above – through work with parents in neighborhoods (through their Best Start initiative) as well as through home visiting and other programs.   The Bezos Family Foundation is pilot testing an effort called Vroom which puts “brain building” tips and tools in parents hands so that day-to-day moments can build language skills AND parent-child bonding.  CSSP has advocated for the entire child care world to use principles of protective factors to help child care workers and parents be who they need to be for their children in their care.

The challenge is whether we will pick up the knowledge that is so abundantly clear; resist latching on to any one solution that looks only at cognitive needs and not at the  whole child; and, yes, invest in our youngest children as we invest in other things that assure our future.  To do less is to watch the disparities referred to in the Times article spread and grow beyond anything we could imagine. 

Frank Farrow is Director of CSSP.


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