Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

From Program to Place: A Community Systems Approach to Supporting Young Children and Families

Joan Lombardi
Joan Lombardi, PhD, is an adjunct professor and Senior Advisor to the Stanford Center on Early Childhood

The central role of the community in supporting young children and families and in promoting a sense of equity has been simmering in me for many years. This concept of the importance of place is not something new or unique to me, but rather an idea that springs from the barn raising of pioneering America, from traditional as well as more recent innovations in civic engagement and community planning, and from the actions of small villages all around the world.  The importance of place, or what I prefer to call “community,” is grounded in the writing of Urie Bronfenbrenner and in the spirit of those who have worked and lived in neighborhoods, from urban streets to rural farmland, to tribal lands.

A core principle of child development is the strong belief that the developing child is shaped by their family, the surrounding community and the policies that affect them. There is something special that happens in a community when people pull together across programs and services and work for a common goal. There is often a level of social connection that can provide a sense of support for families, even during the toughest of times.  Along with such connections, young children need a continuum of quality health and education services, families need economic and social support, and both need neighborhood conditions that help them thrive.

When I first started working with young children in the early 70s, I taught 3- and 4-year-olds in the Allston Brighton neighborhood in Boston. This was an exciting time – a time when the commitment to racial and income equality and early childhood was emerging and the comprehensive approach of Head Start was taking hold. It was a time when community action and economic development were increasingly recognized as central to the well-being of families.

The neighborhood I worked in included smaller geographic areas: from a single building or a few blocks, to a housing complex, to the neighborhood grocery store. Yet when you put these various places together, there was a certain feel, a sense of belonging, which in my case, centered around the Head Start program located in a neighborhood church on Allston Avenue.

While the families may have lived in different sections of the community, it was their love and concern for their children that brought them together. It was this sense of caring that encouraged the senior volunteer to read to the children each week, and brought local health services into the program; it was that sense of caring that allowed Lucy, the family advocate, to reach out to the various local agencies to coordinate services that supported families. Today, this is the same spirit that I see in communities across the U.S. where people are working together to assure the early success of young children and families.

This commentary looks back at the emergence of a community systems approach, provides a rationale for why such a holistic approach is key to healthy child development, describes a framework for creating more sustainable communities to promote early childhood development, and sets forth four recommendations to support community initiatives.

A system’s approach to early childhood development emerges

In 1991, the National Association of State Boards of Education issued the Report of the National Task Force on School Readiness. It was entitled “Caring Communities: Supporting Young Children and Families.” The report called for communities to mobilize public, private, and voluntary efforts to support young children.  In 1993, Gov. James B. Hunt launched Smart Start in North Carolina, a pioneering statewide effort that was grounded in systems change for children 0-5. In 1998, First 5 California emerged, again with a statewide system of county-based 0-5 initiatives.

Despite these early wins towards a system’s approach to early childhood, given the critical need for additional direct services, during the 1990s a more programmatic approach proliferated. By the end of the decade, in many communities you could find an array of programs including Head Start, Early Head Start, child care, early intervention, preschool, home visiting and family support, and a range of maternal and child health initiatives. But these programs and services were historically under-resourced and disjointed so that continuity of quality services was often missing. Moreover, families became more transient, poverty remained stagnant, inequality continued, and it became harder for families to find the supports they needed.

As the new century dawned, while program expansion continued, the drumbeat to create a more comprehensive early childhood system of services grew. In May of 2002, the BUILD Initiative was launched by a group of early childhood funders. Recognizing that state programs, policies, and services for young children and their families often operated in isolation and without adequate resources, the BUILD Initiative set out to bring together state teams of government and non-government leaders to help create a more strategic plan for cross sector-planning.

Federal action for more state system change also grew through such initiatives as the Maternal and Child Health State System Grants, the creation and funding of State Advisory Councils, and the establishment of the Early Learning Challenge Fund. All these efforts were focused on better coordination across the various early childhood programs and policies that had emerged over the years.  In more recent years, the Preschool Development Grants built on earlier initiatives.  Although such state systems efforts moved forward, federal policies remained disconnected and underfunded.

While this system approach was growing in states, some communities across the country began taking their own steps towards system reform. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and such initiatives as Promise Neighborhoods, and other community-based models, more coordinated local initiatives began to emerge.  Communities began to think more systemically about how to plan from the prenatal period through school entry and beyond with a whole family approach. Statewide community-level early childhood infrastructure began to grow in a number of states as a core component of a state early childhood system. Such efforts helped bring communities together across a state. At the same time, national networks emerged across states. For example, EC-LINC is a national network of communities focused on early childhood, and Strive Together is a national network with a focus on cradle-to-career.  

Today, we are at an inflection point. COVID brought people together in communities to respond to emergency needs. The demand to assure equity has put a renewed focus on addressing systemic racism that has plagued too many American communities for centuries. The housing crises and lack of child care and healthcare all continue to disrupt family well-being and threaten child development. And climate change and longstanding environmental issues demand increasing attention. 

While federal policies have not kept up with the demand for maternal and child health, early care and education, or family support so essential to young children, some states are investing their own resources to fill some of the gap, to work towards equity and improved economic conditions, and to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.  Yet in far too many other states, the struggle to bring attention to these critical issues remains a challenge.

Through these lingering challenges, hope and action seem to be growing at the community level.  New and more diverse leadership is emerging, providers are trying to align services, parent voice is increasingly included, and new local civic infrastructure for early childhood system change is emerging. New resources are available to communities through the Inflation Reduction Act and new possibilities through climate action planning.

Communities from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Guilford, North Carolina; from Lincoln, Nebraska to Oakland, California – and in many places in between – are coming together to improve and expand services to support child development and family support. If we look across communities, core components and key elements of infrastructure or processes seem to be emerging.  The definition of community can vary and may include an entire municipality or county, or a subset of towns or neighborhoods, or both. Not every community is doing everything, but many communities seem to be working across sectors and programs to improve outcomes for children and families.

Program to Place — rationale, goals and framework

The science of early childhood underscores the importance of early experiences to long term health, learning and behavior.  Yet parents with young children have reported feeling overwhelmed during and after the pandemic, struggling to find time, resources and supports to balance work and family life.  Neighborhood conditions and public policies matter.  Recent research continues to find that higher neighborhood adversity is associated with greater early childhood developmental vulnerability by age five.   These realities, coupled with the persistence of poverty and the drive for equity, have contributed to the search for ways to support families and influence the developmental trajectory of young children.  

The results from the 2022 National Survey of Children’s Health underscore the importance of focusing on multiple modifiable protective and risk factors, rather than assuming a single program approach.  The survey found that 64% of 3 to 5-year-old children in the United States were healthy and ready to learn, with others either emerging in multiple areas or needing support in at least one area. However, one million children needed support in multiple domains of development, according to the survey. Being healthy and ready to learn was associated with multiple child, family and community factors, such as participation in early childhood education, access to a medical home, outdoor play, reading/singing and storytelling by family members, neighborhood amenities, parental mental health and education, and household language. Risk factors included special health care needs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and food insufficiency, among others. 

Before we look at key aspects of a community early childhood system, it is important to remind ourselves of three developmental principles behind this work:

First: the domains of development are integrated in the developing child. We know that health and nutrition affect learning, and learning affects health. Both are impacted by social emotional development. Few, if any, single programs can fully address all these developmental needs, but different services can work together in a system of support.

Second: one developmental period builds on another. When there are discontinuities, say access to quality child care one year, but not the next, this disruption can be a setback for the developing child. Continuity of access to quality services across the life course is important.

Third: young children are influenced by their families and families are impacted by neighborhood conditions – from safety and security to housing, to environmental conditions and social cultural connections. While the ecology of child development has long established the influence of communities and policies on children and families, a new ecology of child development reinforces this point and addresses the current realities or conditions in the community that may be worsening due to climate change or have been neglected for years due to racism and poverty.

A system’s approach to supporting young children and families tries to create connections and conditions when they don’t exist or strengthen them when they do. It turns to families and providers themselves to help define needs and design services. It couples a focus on direct services for children with efforts to support the economic, emotional, and social well-being of parents and other caregivers.  It recognizes that no one program can do it all, and that there needs to be continuity of support from the prenatal period through school entry and beyond.

Many communities start to focus on early childhood by developing a common vision and set of expected outcomes to address key issues. These outcomes are often defined in terms of goals for children, families and caregivers as well as goals to improve the quality of services, community conditions and civic infrastructure. For example:

  • Child well-being: healthy birth, thriving at 3, happy, healthy, and successful at school entry and into the early primary grades
  • Family well-being: social, economic, and improved living conditions
  • Caregiver well-being: social, economic, and improved working conditions
  • Equity for children and families
  • Access to quality services: health, family support, and early care and learning
  • Improved neighborhood conditions: safe and secure, healthy natural and built environment, adequate housing and cultural supports
  • Infrastructure and processes: improved continuity, coordination, and system functioning

Some level of civic infrastructure and processes must also be in place to encourage continuous input from the community and to promote coordination and tracking of goals. Such civic infrastructure can be developed through municipal, public agency or philanthropic leadership or through parent or provider action. Sometimes this coordinating effort is within a cradle-to-career frame. In other cases, communities are focusing first on the early years either before school or with a focus on prenatal to age 8.

In addition, many communities have a table where program partners come together to align goals and services and assure a system of connections and navigation for families.  Many communities are also tackling the challenge of how best to develop a data system that both provides actionable data in real time to track and improve services, and integrated in a way that captures the array of services families are receiving across the early years and across sectors. Finally, important local efforts have emerged to fund early childhood services or to better coordinate state and federal funds (See Children’s Funding Project).

Four recommendations for action

It is heartening to see how communities are coming together to promote child development, support families, and create safer and healthier neighborhoods. Yet too often, resources for such activities remain limited and policies stand in the way of the very goals and system that are envisioned.

Given the potential of these community system change efforts, I close with four recommendations to public policymakers, philanthropists, and other private funders:

  • Increase financial support for initiatives to facilitate community action, planning and implementation of new early childhood services, with a strong focus on equity.
  • Expand and link local neighborhood initiatives across a geography to build support closer to where people live and with more civic engagement.
  • Support peer-to-peer learning, exchange, and research across communities to better understand what is working to improve outcomes for young children and families.
  • Strengthen the processes and mechanisms to assure community voice in state and federal policymaking.

Going forward, federal and state policies need to be better informed by these community efforts and redesigned and funded in a way that makes young children a priority and responds to the needs and of families in communities. Hope shines through the voices of people working together at the grassroots level, putting in place the kind of civic engagement that is fundamental to a functioning democracy and a vibrant future.

More News Topics