Early Childhood 101

Early Childhood 101


dad and babyState lawmakers have been at the forefront of expanding investments in prekindergarten programs, supporting state child care quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS), strengthening the effectiveness and accountability of home visiting programs as well as developing governance structures to better coordinate programs that serve young children (i.e. Office of Early Childhood, or Department of Early Learning).

The resources found here are designed to help legislators learn about and understand key early childhood policy topics such as: the science of brain development, child care, prekindergarten, home visiting, data systems, governance, parent engagement and early childhood financing and budgets. Click on the links to the right to navigate to each topic. For up-to-date legislative information, please visit NCSL’s legislative early care and education database.

Science of Brain Development

Image of brain scanScientists have discovered that the most rapid period of brain development occurs in the first few years of life. During this time the basic architecture of our brain is being constructed through an ongoing process that begins at birth and continues into adulthood.

This emerging science shows how critical the early years are for brain development and with future success. The Center on the Developing Child provides the latest information on the brain science. State policymakers are beginning to acknowledge the sensitivity of the early brain development by creating early childhood policies and legislation that support a child’s development. 

Key Resources:

Child Care Subsidy and Quality

Two young girls sitting on a swing togetherFor almost two decades, state child care subsidy programs have been both a support for low-income working families to assist with the cost of children care. More recently they have been recognized as an opportunity to provide environments that support early learning and development.

According to the federal government, a half a million child care providers serve more than 1.5 million low-income children through the federal Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). Federal law establishes broad parameters for how states must operate child care subsidy programs, but many decisions are left to the states. The federal government sets basic health and safety requirements, sets a maximum eligibility limit (85 percent of state median income), and requires a minimum of a 4 percent set aside for addressing quality.  Beyond those guidelines, state lawmakers have a wide degree of discretion in their decision-making authority over how their state program is designed. States determine eligibility limits, work requirements, parent-copayments, and reimbursement rates for the subsidy. Child care subsidy programs are funded through a mix of federal and state dollars.

Some of the major issues in child care include:

  • Eligibility: What level of eligibility best meets the needs of the low-income population in your state?
  • Reimbursement to providers: At what rate will you reimburse providers so that they are providing the kind of program you expect? 
  • Program standards: What level of quality do you want from child care programs that serve the most vulnerable children?
  • Workforce: How will the state support the teachers in child care to make sure these programs are effective for getting children off to a good start?
  • Data: How will the state know how children are doing over time and whether state investments play a long-term role to improve outcomes for young children?
  • QRIS: Does you state have continuous improvement system in place?

Key Resources:

Pre-K, School Readiness and Early Literacy

Group of young children laying on thier back and smiling at the cameraForty-one states and the District of Columbia currently provide a total of $5.3 billion in state funding for pre-K programs. State legislatures continue to focus on developing and funding expansions in state prekindergarten programs to support children’s readiness for school. State legislatures are also creating new programs, improving teacher qualifications and enhancing program and quality standards. Recently, some state legislatures have enacted laws to boost early childhood literacy development and provide early support for reading success in the elementary grades. A recent federal initiative provides preschool development grants to states. 

Key Resources:

Home Visiting

Mother and baby visiting with a nurse home visitorHome visiting is a voluntary, home-based prevention strategy used to support pregnant mothers and new parents to promote infant and child health, foster healthy child development, improve school readiness and family self-sufficiency. Services are most often delivered by trained nurses, social worker or child development specialists.

Evidence-based home visiting evaluation findings show positive outcomes for children and families while creating long-term savings for states. For every dollar spent on these efforts returns on investment range from $1.75 - $5.70. State lawmakers play an important role in establishing effective home visiting policies in their states. They can determine how different sources of funding can be leveraged to sustain and improve the quality of states’ existing home visiting systems. The Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting grant, a provision within the federal Patient Protection and affordable Care Act, has provided states with substantial resources for home visiting: $1.5 billion over five years (FYS 2010-2014) with an option for reauthorization at the end of the five years.

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Governance Structures

Young girl with her hands covering her eyesIn 2007, Congress passed the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act that required the governor of each state to designate or establish a council to serve as the state’s early childhood advisory council. In response, governors and legislators across the country have created councils through executive order and legislation.

Early childhood state advisory councils are focusing on systems building, and other issues such as home visiting, data, kindergarten readiness, child care quality and a number of other early childhood topics. State early childhood advisory councils can play a role of in state comprehensive systems building efforts. Some state legislatures have developed governance structures to better coordinate programs that serve young children including creating an office of early childhood or a department of early learning.     

Key Resources:

Early Childhood Data Systems

Young boy jumping in the airData are a vital resource in state efforts to reduce the school readiness gap and bolster educational achievement for all children. However, states often struggle to obtain data that will answer even basic questions about their state’s public early care and education system or children’s early learning experiences. States are looking to create data systems that will help with decisions about the effectiveness and improvements of early care and education programs, the workforce and better child outcomes. Both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and Race to the Top, which offered incentives for the use and development of education data systems, have advanced this work even further.

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State Budgets and Financing Strategies

Baby girl crawling in the green grassState legislators make fiscal decisions in early care and education policy and programs, including child care, prekindergarten, home visiting and other related early childhood programs. A recent NCSL fiscal survey of 21 states found that state FY 2013 appropriations to early care and education remained stable with a slight increase. State policymakers are looking for innovative ways to finance early childhood programs that are results-based and close the achievement gap. Social impact financing, or “Pay for Success,” strategies are gaining popularity in a handful of states with financing specific results-based programs, such as pre-K or home visiting. Some states have utilized public and private partnerships in early childhood to promote better outcomes for young children. States have tax credits and incentives for early childhood.

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Family Supports and Parent Engagement

Young girl smiling while embracing an adultA recent strategy, called Two Generation, is drawing attention for the potential for early childhood programs to support children and parents together. A two generation approach includes components of early childhood education, job training/post secondary education, and wrap-around family support services. Parent engagement generally describes parents’ efforts to promote their children’s healthy development and learning through activities that can be encouraged by educators in child care, preschool and school settings.

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Dual Language Learners (DLL)

Young boy and girl reading togetherThe demographics of the United States are undergoing a dramatic shift related to race and ethnicity. This shift is being experienced across the age spectrum but specifically within the population ages 18 and under. Along with this demographic shift in the country is an increase in the number of children considered Dual Language Learners (DLL)-children who are acquiring two or more languages simultaneously and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language.

Many DLL children arrive to school with limited English proficiency. Not only has this had considerable impact on our educational system, including early care and education programs, but on the children as well; DLL students often have lower levels of academic achievement than non-DLLs and experience a higher rate of school drop-out. The good news is that DLL children who are proficient in English by the end of kindergarten do better on academic outcomes over time, and DLLs  function as well if not better than English-speaking monolinguals in the social-emotional domain (better prosocial skills and fewer behavioral problems).

Studies have shown that more than six million children under five years of age are living in households where English is not the only language spoken. There are a number of states that have experienced two-fold growth of dual language learners during the previous two decades and it is likely that growth will continue. States are beginning to consider policy that relate to DLLs. Here are two examples of enacted legislation:

Minnesota HF2397 (Requires Head Start, the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), and other school readiness program providers to ensure that parents of English learners are actively engaged in the early literacy development of their children (either in English or native language). Requires Head Start programs to employ culturally-relevant early literacy development approaches, collect literacy data to monitor the progress and provide reading instruction specific to the needs of English learners. Requires school readiness programs to assess children's language skills to improve program planning and implementation, promote kindergarten readiness, and ensure teachers are knowledgeable in native and English language development programs. 2014.)

Florida HB7165 (Requires the OEL to review the past years’ state kindergarten reading assessment results and develop an alternative early literacy assessment for non English-speaking VPK students. 2013.)

  Key Resources:

NCSL Early Care and Education Publications and Resources

Additional Resources

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