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Stepping Up Efforts to Build Communities Where Young Children and Families Can Thrive

  ·   By Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.

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


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