Integrating comprehensive services in early childhood settings: a policy brief for state leaders

policy brief

Early childhood programs provide crayons, blocks, and story time – and they should also, a new policy brief says, improve access to comprehensive services.

Strong models already exist, and now is the ideal time for states to draw on the lessons that these programs offer and scale access to comprehensive supports and opportunities.

The pandemic has made the need for more support during early childhood more urgent than ever.

“Researchers from the fields of economics, education, neuroscience, and psychology have found that growing up poor — or during a pandemic — affects child development and school readiness for two primary reasons,” according to the brief – “Building a Statewide System to Support Early Childhood Program Integration with Comprehensive Services” – which has just been released by the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children (CTC) at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. 

The first reason: “research has shown that children in poverty have less access to the types of materials, resources, and enriching everyday experiences that we know promote learning. This is true at home, in their communities, and in their schools.” 

The second reason: “the often chaotic experiences associated with poverty, a public health crisis, or the effects of systemic racism may create prolonged periods of stress for children and their families, which can become toxic to children’s brain development. As the Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains, overactivation of the body’s stress response can keep a child in ‘fight or flight’ mode with harmful consequences for brain growth and readiness to learn in school.” 

The solution: “replace scarcity and stress with enrichment, safety, care, and opportunity.”

The solution: “replace scarcity and stress with enrichment, safety, care, and opportunity.”

 That’s what well-implemented, integrated approaches to comprehensive services do: they recognize students’ strengths and build on them; and they assess students’ needs and address them.

“The idea of meeting the comprehensive needs of young children and their families is not new,” the brief notes.

Among the programs already doing this work are Early Head Start, Head Start, and Educare, which all connect children and families to a range of services and supports, including nutrition benefits as well as physical health and mental health services. In North Carolina, Smart Start supports children ages zero to five and their parents, thanks to state and private funding. And City Connects has taken its evidence-based, cost-effective model of providing integrated student support in elementary schools and adapted it to work in early childhood settings. City Connects has been in “71 early childhood sites, including school-based pre-k programs and free standing early childhood centers serving children ages 0-5.

The next step for policymakers is to learn the lessons offered by those programs and develop “an infrastructure to support effective and efficient coordination of resources dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of young children and their families.” 

The lessons: 

• research indicates that to improve child and family outcomes, services should be customized, comprehensive, coordinated, and continuous 

• create a robust ecosystem of services for young children and families requires financial investment and logistical coordination 

• services should be integrated into programs, not just tacked on, and 

• stable funding is essential 

To be successful, states can support high-quality implementation of integrated services in early childhood settings by taking action in six areas: 

• creating personalized plans to build on each student’s strengths and to meet each student’s needs 

• leveraging existing resources within early childhood programs and in the larger community 

• ensuring the delivery of planned services in the full range of mixed-delivery settings. As the brief says, “In all settings committed to addressing the comprehensive needs of children and families, it is necessary to have personnel with capacity to review every child and to do the work of forging connections and navigating families through paperwork and other hurdles to ensure delivery of services.” 

• using a field-tested technology system to track the delivery of services 

• making investments in quality implementation, and 

• being aligned with other relevant programs and policies such as states’ quality rating systems for early education programs as well as with agencies that support young children and their families

As the brief concludes, multiple forces make now the time to act. Families have complex needs. The pandemic has underscored this, and its harmful social, economic, and health effects have disrupted children’s healthy development. Finally, there are new federal investments in early childhood programs that have put states in a position to “leverage and adapt knowledge of best practices for integrating comprehensive services and practical tools…” 

“This would further the country’s commitments to promoting equity, healthy child development, school readiness, and opportunity for children and families across the United States.”

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