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What makes the difference? Understanding implementation issues to inform scaling of early childhood services

Imagine you are in charge of developing or implementing a large scale early childhood program  to reach a significant number of young children and families across a specific geographic area. Perhaps the plan is to reach several hundred children in a rural neighborhood or thousands of children in a few city blocks, or millions across a state, province or country. Whatever the extent or reach, moving to scale a program or set of services takes ongoing research, a different set of supports and new partnerships to assure some level of quality and effectiveness as the program grows.

Public officials and other implementers need ongoing data about how key program elements are working, what are the effects of such policies on various populations and which infrastructure supports can lead to better results for children and families. (See “What policymakers need from implementation evaluations of early childhood development programs.”)

  • Program elements
    The demands of scaling often strain budgets, which may undermine program quality if adequate resources are not provided. Key variables such as adequate staffing (qualifications, compensation and supervision), caseloads, and dosage must be monitored to assure that cost considerations do not undermine quality as efforts are made to reach more and more children. Access and quality must go hand-in-hand.
  • Population differences
    Bringing a set of services to new families and communities under different circumstances or to children of different age groups, across income groups, and to children with special needs, calls for the collection of ongoing data and decisions to assure effectiveness. Researchers and program managers need to focus on what works for which children and under what circumstances.
  • Infrastructure support
    Once programs are expanded to multiple sites, new structures  are needed to assure quality that can serve as support across programs and services. These include developing new mechanisms to coordinate across sectors and structuring how best to deliver training and technical assistance and financing, which can lead to better outcomes.

As someone who spent several years scaling early childhood programs, I have found that partnerships among researchers, communication experts  and those implementing the programs are essential. Working together can lead to better programming by addressing key issues such as:

  • How can researchers develop program models with scaling in mind? In other words, create models that can build on the policy and program structures already in place in a community or country to facilitate scaling?
  • How can we design a research program that provides data as implementation unfolds rather than waiting to learn what is working and what needs to change when it may be too late?
  • How can the story of what programs mean to families and children be told in a way that leads to greater awareness, more community buy-in and better services?

Ongoing data collection and continuous improvement, along with creative partnerships, are key ingredients to program implementation.

As we move to a new era of scaling services, these core elements can help us answer the central question: What makes the difference for young children and families?

Joan Lombardi directs Early Opportunities LLC, a strategic advisement service focused on young children, families, and the communities that support them.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.