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The Networks We Need for Early Childhood

To optimize children's chances to grow and learn, it's crucial to bring together partners from across the community.

We owe it to our children to do all we can to give them a good start in life. In last month's State of the Union address, President Obama echoed that sentiment, saying that we should be committed to improving life chances for "every child, in every neighborhood."

The good news is that many communities across the country recognize this and are implementing new investments and programs for early childhood. However, a focus on simply creating more programs is out of step with what we know about how to best support child development.

The next surge of efforts must bring together partners from across the community, including those sectors not traditionally focused on children's development. This forward-thinking approach will promote new and innovative collaboration with a shared goal of improving the first five years of children's lives as the most crucial foundation to optimizing their overall development.

By involving education, health, housing, criminal justice, parks and recreation, and other sectors in developing a holistic early childhood agenda, communities can help families with young children overcome the many common challenges to more optimal development. By combining and refocusing resources and expertise on common goals, together these sectors have the potential to transform how children grow and learn.

To be sure, there is still much to be learned about how to successfully coordinate such efforts at a city, community or county-wide level. That's why last month, leading thinkers in child care, pediatrics, public health, housing and criminal justice met at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Drawing on their wide range of expertise and perspectives, the diverse stakeholders considered this critical question: How can we best come together to create communities that nurture and prepare their young children for enriching, healthy lives?

The meeting was organized by the Transforming Early Childhood Community Systems (TECCS) initiative, a group led by the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities (of which I am director) that is exploring broadening opportunities for place-based, cross-sector collaboration. TECCS has already helped more than 50 communities across the country measure and map the assets and barriers their kids face and use this data to engage broad participation in improving conditions for families and their young children.

This effort has created a common currency and dialogue that allows communities to compare outcomes and learn from each other's best practices. The TECCS approach is being used at a local level to compliment a variety of existing state and nationally supported early childhood efforts including Promise Neighborhoods, Project Launch, the Social Innovation Fund and the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.

The stakes couldn't be higher, not just for our children but also for our communities. By addressing such risk factors as poor health conditions and toxic stress that inhibit children's development, we can better leverage the earliest, most critical years. This approach not only reduces disparities based on income but gives all children in the community the opportunities they need to become healthy and productive members of their communities in the future.

The new wave of early childhood development efforts can convene key local players at all levels (from parents to providers to policymakers) and from all sectors (from health and education to housing and public safety) to help focus and align their combined efforts, creating integrated pathways of care and effective networks.

This work also requires attention to the ecosystem in which children grow, learn, live and develop. That's why it's important that communities use population-specific data and a collaborative learning environment. Especially right now, when resources are tight for so many local areas, a community-wide solution using proven data can make efforts for children more effective and cost-efficient.

We must understand the complex realities of young children's lives and then develop comprehensive and collaborative solutions to support families and children -- solutions that are based on a shared vision, common agenda and coordinated action among all of the players influencing early childhood development. It's time to break down the silos.

Dr. Neal Halfon is a professor of pediatrics, health services and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.
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