Early Childhood Systems Building Resource Guide

The first step of PDCA is to plan or design the program. Important parts of planning include getting people ready for change, laying the groundwork among teams and systems, ensuring that the agency is ready, assessing evidence, obtaining leadership buy-in and support, and developing an evaluation framework.[1] Planning sets the direction for the program; a well-conceived plan is critical to success.

Define who benefits and how.[2] Begin planning by focusing on who will benefit from the program. Why is this program needed? What is the purpose of the program? What problem or issue will the program address? Who will benefit from it? This is the rationale, the program’s reason for being. According to the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, “All program designs require clear, explicit identification of the primary beneficiaries and the specific benefits they can expect. Without this foundation, no rational program design methodology can be sustained.” [3]

Define the desired result. The result (or outcome) should be defined during the planning stage. What will result from the implementation of the program? What will be better because of the program? Be specific. Clearly state what the program will improve and who will be responsible. Describe what the program will change or improve, when it will be in place, and what the impact will be. Results are central to planning, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, reporting, and ongoing decisionmaking. Focusing on results rather than activities helps states better articulate their vision and support expected results. Results can help stakeholders better understand the impact that a particular program is to have.[4]

The table below provides examples of inadequate versus improved results statements.

Table 2. Effective Results Statements
Inadequate Results StatementAnalysis of Inadequate Results StatementImproved Results Statement
We will improve the quality of early childhood programs.This result statement is vague and does not clearly state what will be different. How will you know when this has been achieved? Even if progress was achieved, does this kind of result statement provide opponents an opportunity to say that results were not as promised?By the end of 2017, 75 percent of child care programs that participate in the subsidy program will be in one of the top two tiers of our QRIS.
All early childhood services need to use developmental screening.This example does not specify a result, nor does it specify the setting, whom the screenings are for, or when they should happen. “Need to” is not measurable. “Use developmental screenings” to what end—training teachers? Are pediatricians considered an early childhood service?All children who attend licensed child care programs will receive a developmental screening within the first 90 days of attendance.
Early childhood mental health services (ECMHS) will be coordinated.This example does not provide specificity or clear direction as to who ECMHS will coordinate with, how coordination is to happen, or by when this is to occur. What is the measurable achievement?By October 2018, training and support of ECMH consultants in every county will result in a 15 percent increase in the number of counties that have mechanisms in place to coordinate services among ECMH and early childhood programs.
By December 2017, expulsions will be reduced.This example does not specify how the State will go about reducing expulsions, nor does it provide information as to what settings are targeted. Children in any type of program? What age group?By December 2017, there will be a 15 percent reduction in expulsions from licensed early childhood programs. This reduction will be achieved by increasing knowledge and supports using the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social and Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children.

Determine whether a particular program is the right fit. An analysis of fit is critical to designing and implementing a successful program. One tool that can be helpful is the Hexagon Tool developed by Blase, Kiser, and Van Dyke at the National Implementation Research Network. It lays out six key areas that can be used as discussion topics to identify gaps and strengths, what needs exist, and next steps. See the Resources section of this guide for information on obtaining a copy of the Hexagon Tool. [5]

Table 3. The Hexagon Tool
ElementCritical Questions
Needs of children and families - in other words, how well the program or practice might meet identified needs
  • Is there a need? How do you know?
  • Do parents and community members perceive a need? Do providers? Do policymakers?
  • What data indicate that there is a need?
  • Does a similar or related program already exist to meet this need?
Fit with current initiatives, priorities, structures and supports, and parent and community values
  • How does the proposed program fit with the State’s current ECE initiatives?
  • How does it fit with State and local ECE priorities?
  • How does it fit with existing organizational structures?
  • How does it fit with community values, including the values of diverse cultural groups?
  • How does it fit with what families and children need?
  • Will the program’s implementation or outcomes be enhanced or diminished as a result of interaction with related programs?
Resource availability for training, staffing, technology supports, curricula, data systems, and administration

Are the following resources and supports available at all levels of the system (state, intermediary, and direct service)?

  • Staffing
  • Training
  • Data systems
  • Coaching and supervision
  • Administrative and system supports
  • Communications
  • Financing and budget
Evidence indicating the outcomes that might be expected if the program or practices are implemented well
  • Is there evidence that this program is worth implementing?
  • Is it cost effective? What data are there on the program’s cost effectiveness?
  • How many studies have demonstrated positive results?
  • Are there similarities between the studies’ populations and our population? Did the study include the same cultural groups as our population?
  • Was the program effective; did it produce the intended results? Are those the results we want?
  • Is there ample and strong evidence to suggest that this program is a good use of our time and money—that well implemented, it will achieve the result we want?
Readiness for replication of the program, including expert assistance available, number of replications accomplished, exemplars available for observation, and how well the program is operationalized
  • Is expert or technical assistance available?
  • Are there strong examples (sites) where the program can be observed?
  • Have there been several replications of this program?
  • How well defined is the program and its features?
  • Are there operational definitions of the essential functions?
  • Do we know the core features that will make this program successful?
Capacity to implement as intended and to sustain and improve implementation over time
  • Do we have the leadership at all levels (state, intermediary, and direct service) that can lead implementation and sustain the program?
  • Do we have the organizational supports, such as data systems, data-driven decisionmaking, and a supportive administrative environment, at all levels (state, intermediary, and direct service) to implement and sustain this program?
  • Do we have staff at all levels (state, intermediary, and direct service) that have the necessary minimum qualifications to implement the program?
  • Do we have staff at all levels (state, intermediary, and direct service) that will be open to the new program and willing and able to implement and sustain the program?
  • Can we make the necessary changes for success to the organization, financing, and data systems at all levels (state, intermediary and direct service)?

Source: Adapted from The Hexagon Tool – Exploring Context (2013), by the National Implementation Research Network.


[1] Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health (2013). Implementing evidence-informed practice: A practical toolkit. Ottawa, Ontario: Author. Retrieved from http://www.excellenceforchildandyouth.ca/sites/default/files/docs/implementation-toolkit.pdf.

[2] National Partnership for Reinventing Government. 1993. Improving Program Design. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/npr/library/reports/pddc.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] United Nations Development Group. (2010). Results-based management handbook: Strengthening RBM harmonization for improved development results (March 24th draft). New York: Author. Retrieved from http://www.un.cv/files/UNDG%20RBM%20Handbook.pdf.

[5] National Implementation Research Network. (2013). The Hexagon Tool – exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: Author.