1. Establish Relationships with Key Legislators and Staff
One of your first steps should be identifying the committees of jurisdiction for infant and toddler issues. The presiding officer of each chamber appoints members to committees to consider and make recommendations concerning bills, resolutions and other related matters. How bills get assigned to the different committees varies from state to state. Once you’ve identified the committees, you can zero in further on the committee members who have the greatest influence. This may not be your own representative, and in fact, it likely will be the committee chair or another member with interest in infant and toddler policies. When you’re ready, request a meeting with these legislators, and position yourself as a knowledgeable and dependable resource. In short, establish yourself as a go-to person on infant and toddler issues.
Committees of jurisdiction for infant and toddler issues vary by state and cross many jurisdictions and interest areas, among them health and human services, early intervention, education, public assistance and mental health. Typically, infant and toddler legislation goes through the health and/or human services committees in each chamber, which means communication and relationship-building must include a broad set of legislators and legislative staff.
In some states, the best way to reach legislators may be by building a relationship with key staff members. Contact them periodically to remind them you are interested in being a resource. A good time to contact them, for example, might be on the heels of newly released data; you can help them interpret the data and discuss ways the legislature might address issues the data highlights. Even seasoned legislators need access to current data and objective analysis of evolving issues.
If your professional capacity restricts you from such activities, consider working through your organization’s government relations staff or other influential people who are allowed to contact legislators. You could also offer your expertise and assistance to a community-based advocacy organization.
Another way to develop relationships with legislators is to engage with legislative children’s caucuses. Children’s caucuses allow stakeholders to access legislators with a professed interest in children’s issues. Many meetings are open to the public and provide a venue to discuss infant and toddler issues. The box on page 8 outlines key features of legislative children’s caucuses.
Keep in Mind
- Learn about your state’s budgeting process, from the governor to the legislature, as early as possible. Your goal is to have funding for the programs and practices you care about included in the governor’s recommended budget. Budgeting processes vary by state, and most states have a webpage that summarizes the process.
- Become legislators’ source for information on an infant-toddler program and where you can bring professional expertise and personal experience. Above all, be trustworthy. Legislators do not like surprises.
- Understand and respect that some lawmakers will not be receptive to using tax dollars to support infant and toddler programs and services.
- Cut to the chase with your information, make sure your facts are correct, be honest about the pros and cons of policies, and be responsive to their requests—legislators often need concise information fast.
- Develop a compelling narrative. Infants and toddler issues are not well publicized and may not be well understood or seen as a responsibility of government. Facts coupled with powerful stories illustrate why the well-being of babies and toddlers may be a state concern. For sample messages, visit the Think BabiesTM toolkit.
2. Network with Other Individuals and Organizations
Building or joining a network of individuals or organizations working on related issues can be an effective strategy. Find out what professional associations or advocacy organizations are operating in your state. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, and Child Care Aware® of America likely have chapters in your states. In addition, Zero to Three’s Think BabiesTM campaign is active in six states. Quite often these organizations have research and analysis on families’ needs and policy alternatives, and they may also have guidance on how to navigate the legislature in your state.
Another method to indirectly educate policymakers is to raise important issues with the people and organizations that legislators rely on for information. This includes researchers, foundations, advocacy organizations, civic organizations, labor unions, business associations, state agencies and the media.
Keep in Mind
- Build or reach out to an existing network and speak as a group.
- Collaboration or coalition building can be difficult. You may not agree on everything, but you can come together on shared issues and speak with a common voice.
- Keep individuals and groups with similar interests apprised of your activities, even if you don’t have a formal collaboration. You may find additional areas where you can support each other when the lines of communication are open.
3. Engage with Legislators in Their Communities
Connecting with legislators about specific issues in their districts often is an effective strategy. When legislators are not at work in the capitol, they often are interacting with their constituents at town hall meetings and other public events and increasingly through social media. Visit the Think BabiesTM toolkit to better understand how to talk about infant and toddler issues in your community. After an in-person interaction, calling or emailing a legislator’s local office to reinforce your message is a good idea.
Keep in Mind
- Avoid information overload by prioritizing the issues most critical to you and most salient in the current political environment.
- Suggest topics for others to highlight when communicating with legislators. For example, consider identifying the hot topics of the day or explaining what new legislators need to know about infant and toddler development and well-being. Piggybacking on major news events, like new federal funding for child care and home visiting, is another strategy.
- Let people know what information you have now and what you can access with more time. Keep it readily available and follow up promptly if they call.
4. Frame Your Message
Careful framing of your message is essential. Governors and state legislative leaders generally establish priority issues for each legislative session. Quite often states are dealing with tight budgets. Therefore, cost-effectiveness and careful use of limited resources is often the filter through which legislators evaluate policy proposals and funding requests. But that’s not always the case.
Questions to ask yourself:
- How does the issue affect individuals, families and businesses in the district and state? What are the costs and benefits of a specific program or bill? What is the expected return on investment? Again, share your personal story as an infant-toddler professional and how early childhood programs can make a difference for children and families in the district and state.
- Has a program or strategy been implemented elsewhere with positive results? Could it be replicated in your state?
- What are the consequences of not acting? For example, explain what is known about early childhood brain development and why acting early is important. (See box on framing approaches.)
- Would new efficiencies make programs more effective or less costly?
Carefully choose the words and images you use to increase the odds that people will pay attention to your message. People bring their own experiences and frames of reference to bear, and the words or images you use can determine whether your audience will be open to the message or turn away from it. Creating receptive listeners requires that you pay attention to how you frame an issue so people feel that it benefits everyone. Ideally, messages should align with “big ideas” or shared beliefs, such as responsibility, prevention or success. Use your expertise as someone who works with infants and toddlers to make the connection that early childhood is a good investment.
For more information on state legislatures and early care and education issues, visit www.ncsl.org. Learn more about birth-to-three issues from ZERO TO THREE and the Think Babies™ Campaign.
Think Babies Resources
- Learn how to frame infant and toddler issues using Think Babies key messages.
- Visit Think Babies for information on how to research infant-toddler organizations in your community, develop a professional network, and build communication infrastructure for your network.
- Use the Think Babies toolkit for tips on talking about infant and toddler issues and hosting town hall meetings.
- Visit Strolling Thunder to learn about events happening in state capitols.