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Advancing State Policies for Infants and Toddlers

Between 2014 and 2016, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, ZERO TO THREE’s Policy Center had the opportunity to work with public-private planning groups in three states—Indiana, Oregon, and Vermont—to develop and take action on state infant-toddler policy priorities.

by Amanda Szekely and Jamie Colvard, Senior Technical Assistance Specialists, ZERO TO THREE

Even as federal policy dominates headlines, state policymakers also play an important role in meeting the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families. For example, state policymakers around the country can work to:

  • expand investment in early care and education, health, and family support programs;
  • strengthen professional development provided to individuals working with very young children and families;
  • enhance systems that support programs in improving quality; and
  • adopt policies that promote access to health and mental health prevention and treatment.

While these efforts are already underway across the country, ZERO TO THREE found that few states have intentionally focused on the unique needs of infants and toddlers across systems. We wondered what it would look like if key public and private stakeholders came together to focus on how their state could better support its youngest children. Between 2014 and 2016, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, ZERO TO THREE’s Policy Center had the opportunity to work with public-private planning groups in three states—Indiana, Oregon, and Vermont—to develop and take action on state infant-toddler policy priorities.

Although policy change can take considerable time, all three states made important progress in building stronger relationships between partner agencies and organizations and in working together to promote common goals. For example:

  • The Indiana group worked together to develop and disseminate an issue brief calling for state action to support infants and toddlers and describing policy recommendations to strengthen child care and other programs, including both “easy wins” and long-term strategies.
  • Oregon’s prenatal-3 committee developed a plan to strengthen their state home visiting system, with a focus on professional development and tracking progress toward common outcomes.
  • Vermont’s infant-toddler group served as a hub for a coordinated strategy to improve developmental screening and referral and to increase financing for home visiting.

After supporting these three states’ efforts, we learned more about what works well in promoting policies to support infants and toddlers. As other states consider taking on this type of effort, we recommend:

  • Engaging stakeholders representing a range of programs serving young children. This may include: public and private agencies from various sectors, advocates, and professional associations. Consider the balance of individuals who have authority to advance an agenda and those who have capacity to take on day-to-day work.
  • Building consensus on infant-toddler policy priorities. It is important to start this process by deciding on a few specific areas of focus to guide the group’s work. Each of the states in this project selected three or four priorities that they considered realistic, high-impact, and targeted to specific needs in the state. The ZERO TO THREE self-assessment toolkit can help state leaders assess current policies and identify areas that need attention. Infant-toddler stakeholders may also consider how to bring infants and toddlers’ needs to the forefront of existing policy discussions, such as health care reform or revisions of a state child care quality initiative.
  • Elevating infant-toddler issues with policymakers and the public. This can happen by developing effective messaging for policymakers on the need to support infants and toddlers and on the specific policy priorities that the group has identified. Consider using resources from ZERO TO THREE’s Think Babies campaign to make the case for a focus on infants and toddlers.
  • Establishing systems to sustain a focus on infants and toddlers over time. Consider finding a “home” for infant-toddler policy work that can be sustained over time. All three of the states participating in this project decided to embed or align their work with existing state early childhood advisory councils that have a focus on building state systems for children from birth to 5 (or 8) years old, while continuing to elevate the unique needs of infants and toddlers.

ZERO TO THREE regularly provides technical assistance to state policy leaders, advocates, and other stakeholders to help them to advance an infant-toddler policy agenda. For more information, contact Barbara Gebhard at bgebhard@zerotothree.org.

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