Early Childhood Supports Key

Last Updated: May 27, 2014

This article appeared in the May 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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As research increasingly demonstrates the importance of a child’s early years—including prenatal care—for lifelong health and success, advocates are looking to find and implement more strategies to ensure that all children get the support they need.

A new guide examines what states can and are doing to put in place the supports and policies that support young children and their families.

“Building High Quality Early Support Systems for Children and Families” was released this month by the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, and Opportunity Action. It opens with key research findings about how the failure to support young children and their families affects the nation’s educational and economic outcomes. It explores four key areas in which state policies can improve outcomes and presents examples of programs in place across the country that are making a difference.

A nation lagging

In recent years there has been increasing concern about and media attention to U.S. academic outcomes compared to those of other countries. But far less attention has been given to the circumstances of America’s children as compared to those in other similarly developed nations.

The differences are stark. For example, according to “Building High Quality Early Support System for Children and Families,” only 50% of children in the U.S. attend publicly supported pre-school, compared to 85% in peer nations. More children live in poverty in the U.S. than in any other developed nation except Romania; half of America’s children qualify for free or reduced lunch and a quarter live in deep poverty. The rate of premature births in the U.S. equals that of Sudan.

Challenges are likely to increase as the U.S. becomes more diverse. Children of color make up nearly half of all U.S. children, and 10% of children are learning English.

Across the country outcomes vary significantly by state, demonstrating that state policy and economic conditions have real bearing on the life possibilities of children. For example, premature births constitute 9% of births in Vermont and Oregon, but 17% in Mississippi. Nineteen states have waiting lists for child care.

Policies to strengthen educational outcomes in the U.S. have focused on standards, testing, and teacher evaluation. The guide argues that these emphases by themselves “cannot substantially improve students’ learning conditions or outcomes in the absence of accompanying supports.”

The right supports

“Building High Quality Early Support Systems” identifies three primary areas in which states can focus policy efforts to improve education and economic outcomes for children. These include providing all families with access to a) comprehensive pre- and post-natal maternal, infant, and family supports; b) high quality childcare; and c) high quality early childhood education.

It offers a detailed list of questions states can use to gather the data it needs to determine the status of its children and to catalog the policies and programs in place or needed to support young children and their families.

Comprehensive Pre- and Post-Natal Maternal, Infant and Family Supports

Medicaid and the Family and Medical Leave Act provide a framework for early health care supports for the most at-risk infants and their mothers. However, states vary greatly in how they leverage these and other federal programs. Some states additionally offer their own programs with varying levels of quality and reach.

Key components of pre- and post-natal supports include access to comprehensive health care and health counseling; screenings and follow-up supports to identify and address health problems and developmental delays; and home visitation programs that help families understand and provide the care, nurturing, and stimulation their children need and also connect families to other supports as indicated.

Enhancing Quality of and Access to Child Care

Nearly half of all U.S. children are in some type of childcare arrangement because their parents work outside the home. Lack of access to reliable, high-quality care inhibits the ability of many families to move out of poverty. Further, childcare providers are often inadequately trained and underpaid. Supports must both increase access to and improve the quality of childcare.

The guide advocates improving quality of care in centers with rating systems that measure adult-child ratios, group size, credentialing of staff, and early learning standards. States can boost compliance with standards with tax credits and other incentives for centers that serve low-income children and for businesses that support highly rated centers. States can also extend training and supports for home-based providers to improve quality.

In addition, states can leverage and expand on their federal Child Care and Development Block grants to expand eligibility and access and to offer wrap-around services. Further, states can expand tax credits and exemptions for low-income families with young children increasing the ability of those families to pay for child care.

High-Quality Early Education

Forty states offer some kind of pre-K program for four year olds, although access and quality vary widely. Since 2007 enrollment and per-child spending have declined. There are, however, a number of good models.

Expanding pre-K programs requires developing sufficient numbers of teachers and aides; stimulating classroom environments and strong teacher-student relationships; high-quality curricula and age-appropriate assessments; and parent engagement—all within “the context of systems that are equitable with respect to race, language, culture and community needs.”

Coordination of effort

“Building High Quality Early Support Systems” emphasizes the importance of "coordination pre- and post-natal supports, child care, healthcare and pre-k and of aligning all those with the early elementary years."

While there are a number of modeles for achieving these goals there are also significant challenges. According to the guide, there are three primary challenges. First, funding is rarely sufficient and is often sporadic and vulnerable, which tends to encourage competition rather than collaboration. Second, agencies and other organizations are often siloed, which impedes collaboration and makes aligning programs difficult. Third, funding sources often discourage collaboration with different and sometimes conflicting requirements.

The guide identifies four areas in which states can take action to improve collaboration. These include building public and political will; enacting good the right policies; developing strong, stable governance structures; and, ensuring sufficient capacity. 

Uniquely rural policy concerns

The guide does not specifically address the provision of early supports in rural areas. States will need to consider the unique needs of rural communities, especially those that are remote, high-poverty, or very small. For example, states will need to:

  • consider and use a variety of mechanisms for reaching rural families where they live;
  • provide adequate transportation for pre-K programs and allocate sufficient funding to cover the extra costs of distance in rural areas, including transportation subsidies for families where necessary to ensure access;
  • build in higher per-child time allocations and transportation costs for home visitation programs to account for greater distances in rural areas;
  • develop and utilize training models for child care providers that account for travel distances and expenses and lack of technology and broadband infrastructure in some rural places;
  • expand delivery of health care, particularly primary and wellness care, into rural and remote communities;

Early childhood support and education are increasingly recognized as key factors for long-term academic and economic success of the United States as well as for individual children. “Building High Quality Early Supports” is an important contribution to the conversation.

Read more:

“Building High Quality Early Childhood Education Support systems for Children and Families”:


Read more from the May 2014 Rural Policy Matters.