The Importance of Investing in the Early Years

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Although it has been widely accepted that investments in early childhood programs positively impact outcomes spanning into adulthood, mounting research has shifted the focus to the earliest years of life underscoring the importance of embracing early intervention and prevention-focused policies and practices in local health and human services.

Recent brain science research at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University indicates that nearly one million new neural connections are made per second within the first few years of life.[1]  Shocking, right? As we are going about our daily routines, children are absorbing everything that is happening to them – feeling cold rain drops on their nose, listening as their grandparents read to them, and observing squirrels chasing each other at a local park. Each of these unique experiences are woven into a foundation that will impact learning, behavior and health later in life.

However, not all children share the same experiences or are born into the same set of circumstances.  Many factors can disrupt a child’s earliest experiences and weaken brain development, such as exposure to poverty, enduring a natural disaster, witnessing community violence or even the behavioral health of a parent. Researchers have found that these factors create disparities in children that begin to appear by age three and follow them into adulthood, which can lead to unpromising circumstances like low wages and poor health.[2] While these circumstances alone are concerning, they oftentimes exacerbate into larger community problems with long-lasting systemic effects. 

Understanding how early challenges layer onto each other is critical to the role that counties play in addressing the needs of our nation’s youngest residents. Nobel Laureate and Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, Dr. James Heckman, found that investments in high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent return on investment (ROI).[3] Investing in sustainable strategies and innovative solutions that support the cognitive, socio-emotional and physical well-being of children and families up front help to build skills and conquer adversity as future problems arise.

Here are a few ways counties can begin to create an infrastructure that invests in thriving children and families and prioritizes a prenatal through age three (PN-3) lens:

  • Collaborate with local businesses, non-profit organizations, schools and faith-based communities to share information, reduce duplication of services and increase quality. Strategically aligned programs and services can help to realize potential savings opportunities.
  • Connect with a broader group of individuals. Share best practices with national, regional and state leaders. Publicly support the advancement of early childhood policies and programs. Invite and encourage resident participation.
  • Work towards cultivating a continuum for families by co-locating prenatal through age three services into one space to increase access, enhance coordination across sectors and streamline processes.  For example, a faith-based organization may provide a parenting education class in the same building where a county government manages the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a pediatrician’s office offers developmental screenings and a local farmer sets up a vegetable stand that accepts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Consider your space options. Are there buildings in your community that aren’t being utilized or are under-utilized? Are there space-sharing opportunities that already exist?
  • Where possible, streamline intake procedures and processes across programs to increase efficiency in case management and apply a trauma-informed lens.  Can you use one intake form to meet requirements for multiple programs?  Think about the point of entry for your residents.  What is their experience? If they are seeking assistance, do they go to one access point and complete one form for many services or do they need to visit several places to submit similar information?
  • Review your accountability system.  Consider your monitoring and reporting mechanisms.  Are you sharing your data across programs and services? Apply an equity lens. Are there disparities?  Are your indicators effectively aligned with the desired outcomes? What is the story behind the data? Are you using the data to drive decision-making? 
  • Seek innovative, alternative funding strategies and revenue streams. Early intervention and prevention programs can have a large budgetary impact. How do you create systemic change when budgets are tight and procurement processes are burdensome? Expand your capacity by leveraging funds from a local or state tax. Explore private sector investments through Social Impact Bonds or Pay for Success awards. Learn more about opportunities to partner with local philanthropic organizations, economic development authorities or higher educational systems. Set consistent time aside to search for potential grant opportunities.
  • Be flexible. A truly successful system understands that constant evaluation and continuous improvement are vital in an ever-changing world. 

A model early childhood system fosters all of these characteristics: collaboration, quality, communication, accessibility, equity, accountability, sustainability and flexibility. Nevertheless, whether your county is just beginning to prioritize early childhood development or already has an expansive system in place, it is essential that early investments in children are accepted as a long-term value of the community, rather than seen as a short-term initiative.  Taking the time to establish and refine an early childhood infrastructure is a critical step towards obtaining that long-standing commitment and building a strong foundation to support the myriad of programs and services for children and families in your community.


NACo is interested in learning more about what your county is doing to address PN-3 needs and challenges. To share, please contact Tracy Steffek, Program Manager, at (202) 661-8813 or via email at  


[1] Center on the Developing Child (2009).  Five Numbers to Remember About Early Childhood Development (Brief).  Updated April 2017.  Retrieved from

[2] [2] Center on the Developing Child (2009).  Five Numbers to Remember About Early Childhood Development (Brief).  Updated April 2017.  Retrieved from

[3] Heckman, James J. et al (Updated May 26, 2017). Quantifying the Life-cycle Benefits of a Prototypical Early Childhood Program. Retrieved from 

About Tracy Steffek (Full Bio)

Program Manager for Human Services

Tracy Steffek is the Program Manager for Human Services in the County Solutions and Innovation (CSI) department. In this role, she is responsible for educating and assisting county officials across the United States on human services issues and for the development and implementation of an early childhood project.

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