We know an infant’s brain develops faster from birth to age three than at any later period in life, building the foundation for future learning, behavior and health. Parents play the lead role in their child’s development, especially in the earliest years of their child’s life. However, parents are often stretched for time and resources and lack the adequate supports needed to help foster children’s growth and learning. County leaders serve as catalysts for change by making an impact in communities and therefore, can help build the case for making early investments and promoting the necessary programs and services that support families with infants and toddlers.
The Pritzker Children’s Initiative (PCI) has set out to advance policies and programs to ensure that every family has the support they need to give their infants and toddlers a strong start in life. In order to focus on strengthening existing programs that promote healthy brain development, PCI has partnered with the National Association of Counties (NACo) to bring successful interventions to scale and support evidence-based polices at the state and community levels.
Earlier this year, NACo launched the Pritzker Children’s Impact Network (PCIN) to provide a cohort of counties with tailored technical assistance and support in moving the needle to promote their prenatal-to-three interventions. Those selected counties include: Boone, Mo.; Champaign, Ill.; Dauphin, Pa.; Pierce, Wash.; Ramsey, Minn.; Tarrant, Texas; Washington, Va.; and Watauga, N.C.
Collectively, across 29 communities, our goal for ensuring that children are on track for kindergarten readiness at age three is to improve their outcomes by driving increased attention on prenatal-to-three initiatives and the critical need for early investments —at the national, state and community levels—with a focus on these three core areas:
- Healthy Beginnings: A healthy beginning starts before birth. To improve chances for a strong start in life, access to comprehensive prenatal and early care that includes screenings and referrals to any necessary services can ensure healthy births and support optimal development in a child's earliest months and years.
- Supported Families: From birth to age three, stimulating learning opportunities and nurturing, responsive relationships fundamentally shape how a baby’s brain develops. Supports that help parents navigate raising young children and nurture healthy development—whether it’s parenting skills classes, screenings for maternal depression or preventive screenings for infants—can help ensure babies get what they need during this critical time for development. Building a home visiting infrastructure that provides every family this early and timely support is an effective way to get it done.
- High-Quality Child Care and Early Learning: High-quality child care must be accessible and affordable to every family who needs it. Whether it is in a child care center or with friends, family or neighbors, stimulating learning opportunities and nurturing, responsive relationships with caregivers are crucial to support healthy brain development in infants and toddlers.
Together, PCI and NACo understand that counties help to shape early childhood systems and are instrumental in investing in core services for infants and toddlers that help to support a thriving community and positively impact outcomes into adulthood.
Exciting efforts are underway, and as a leader in your community for early childhood initiatives, communicating the importance of starting early to other elected officials is critical. Research shows that the following four key messages can successfully build bipartisan support for much-needed programs that help infants, toddlers and their families:
- Birth to age three is critical for brain development. The first three years are the bricks and mortar of brain development. A child’s brain develops faster from birth to age three than at any other later period in life, building the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.
- Parents are stretched. Parents are a child’s most important caregiver and play the lead role in their child’s healthy development. All families with young children—especially first-time parents, those with both parents in the labor force and those without extended family nearby—are stretched for time and resources.
- Government plays a role. Communities and governments can empower families with the support they may need at this especially critical and stressful time. Programs, policies and services should start early to ensure healthy beginnings at birth, support families with infants and toddlers and make high-quality child care and learning environments more accessible and affordable to all.
- Early investment works. When infants and toddlers get what their growing brains need, they become healthy kids who are confident, empathetic and ready for school and life. Research shows that when we invest in the first three years of a child’s life, the returns for the community are the highest, and we can reduce the need for more expensive interventions later. Programs and policies that support healthy brain development from birth to age three result in better social, economic and health outcomes and build a more productive workforce that strengthens our economy now and in the future.
These messages are only part the equation; a strategic approach to communications that builds a narrative and considers the factors on-the-ground in individual counties is also essential to your effectiveness. This doesn’t mean you should start drafting up press releases—in fact, that should be one of the last things to consider in the planning process! Try to start by:
- Agreeing on the communications objectives of your early childhood initiatives or program goals. For instance, are you trying to raise awareness, share information, increase engagement, influence policy, or increase funding?
- Determining who your allies are and brainstorming how they can help you reach your audience. For example, how can your local homeowners’ associations or the faith community share your message to their audience? What are some ways their audiences can leverage your messages to influence policymakers and other elected officials?
- Outlining tactics. All of these factors assist in identifying your tactics, which could include press releases, infographics, fact sheets, social media posts, videos or even letter to the editor campaigns. Importantly, your tactics should flow from your strategic plan, consider your capacity and outline how you will know when you’ve achieved success.
Now is a critical time for counties to message the importance of investing in young children early, advocate for policies and programs that support children’s development and create opportunities for their long-term success. Please help us in sharing these key messages of support for programs and policies focused on proven interventions for infants and toddlers in your community. And, to learn more about PCI’s work with NACo, please contact Tracy Steffek, Program Manager, at (202) 661-8813 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GMMB is a communications agency dedicated to creating real and lasting change in the world. They’ve partnered with the Pritzker Children’s Initiative to provide communications assistance related to this national effort for children.