Policy Resource

In Our Own Backyards: Local Initiatives That Change Young Children's Lives

Apr 14, 2006

This article is excerpted from “In Our Own Backyards: Local Initiatives that Change Young Children’s Lives” published in the July 2006 issue of Zero to Three.

Building Early Childhood Systems in Communities

The foundation laid in the first five years of life can be sturdy or fragile and can be influenced by many factors. Unfortunately, in too many communities, children cannot rely on a coherent system of supports to aid their development. Child care, health care, and other family supports and services are rarely coordinated and are too frequently divided by where families live, how rich or poor they are, and who they know.

Building comprehensive systems for young children requires new ways of doing business at both the state and local levels. Local communities in particular play an important role in building and managing an early childhood system, serving as laboratories for what can and does work. Community-based initiatives also present opportunities to extend beyond traditional public services to include voluntary support systems for families.

In addition to providing useful information for the state and national levels, communities themselves have much to gain from learning about other efforts. Sharing the successes of exemplary models can lead to other communities adopting or adapting aspects rather than reinventing the wheel. Similarly, highlighting best practices can help these communities progressively increase their implementation of the program. Even stories of failed strategies or barriers to success can be instructive to those communities not as far along in planning and implementing early childhood systems. What is needed now is a comprehensive knowledge base that identifies models of community collaborations to improve services for young children, and that examines how to continue and spread their successes.

Learning From Communities Involved in Early Childhood System Building

To fill this gap, ZERO TO THREE and Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s Invest in Children are cohosting a national policy summit on early childhood system building in communities entitled, “In Our Own Backyards: Local Initiatives that Change Young Children’s Lives.” The summit will examine how communities are supporting early childhood development by building coordinated systems of services for young children (prenatal through age five) and their families. It will be held on June 6 – 8, 2007 in Cleveland, Ohio. Additional sponsors/funders are the: Build Initiative, Cleveland Foundation, Community Vision Council, George Gund Foundation, A.L. Mailman Family Foundation, Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, National Association of Counties, Smart Start National Technical Assistance Center, and United Way of America.

To plan for the summit, a Request for Information was circulated in June 2006, which invited communities to submit examples of stakeholders working together (and with the state) to develop a comprehensive system of services and policies for young children. Information was received from 42 communities in 27 states, and 36 initiatives have been invited to share their work during the summit.

The summit will highlight local models of early childhood system development by examining how they make critical decisions, integrate lessons learned, and explore the potential for replication. Summit participants will also look at the connection with state and federal policies that can support or hinder these efforts.

A compendium of systems building efforts and the summit proceedings, drawn from the local initiatives and a cross-community analysis, will be published by ZERO TO THREE. It will include a “call to action” consisting of policy and practice changes that need to be made at the community, state, and federal levels. By identifying exemplary initiatives and framing discussion around their key issues, the policy summit will highlight how local efforts are collaborating to improve services for young children and will examine how to continue and spread the successes.

Advocating for Early Childhood Systems in Your Own Community

As an early childhood professional, you can work toward better coordinated systems of services for young children and their families within your own community and through state-level initiatives. It is important that we act on what we know about the positive outcomes for children, and bring together local programs, families, and interested community members to improve opportunities for infants, toddlers, and their families. To play a role in your community’s system building, we encourage you to do the following:

  1. Educate yourself about what it means to build an early childhood system. Some good sources of information about early childhood system building are: State Early Childhood Technical Assistance Network http://www.finebynine.org/index.html The Center for Healthier Children and Communities http://www.healthychild.ucla.edu Build Initiative http://www.buildinitiative.org
  2. Read about initiatives in other states and communities. The Baby Monitor, a biweekly electronic newsletter from ZERO TO THREE’s Policy Network, highlights state activities in each issue. You can sign up to receive The Baby Monitor at http://capwiz.com/zerotothree/mlm/signup. You can also regularly visit the ZERO TO THREE Policy Center website (www.zerotothree.org/policy) for profiles of community system-building initiatives.

  3. Talk with state and local early childhood administrators and child advocacy organizations to find out what is happening in your community and state to build effective service systems and improve outcomes for young children.

  4. Get involved! Join a local or statewide coalition working to improve services and policies for young children, or convene local organizations and other interested persons to discuss the possibilities.

ZERO TO THREE hopes to increase understanding of how communities are supporting early childhood development by building coordinated systems of services for young children and their families. By shining a light on exemplary models of early childhood system building in communities, we have an opportunity to ensure that local communities are not left behind as state and federal activities take hold.


  • Cohen, J., Onunaku, N., Clothier, S., & Poppe, J. (2005). Helping young children succeed: Strategies to promote early childhood social and emotional development. Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures and ZERO TO THREE.
  • National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips, (Eds.), Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Author

    Barbara Gebhard

    Assistant Director, Public Policy

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