Design and Implementation

Program implementation is about making a program work. It includes who, what, where, and how a program is set up and run. Early childhood initiatives work within contexts that are complex, fragmented, and often vulnerable to changes in political and economic climates—all things that can work with or against a program’s ability to achieve results. Effective implementation is more than a contributing factor in setting initiatives up for success. Research shows that the quality of implementation plays a significant part in bringing about outcomes[2]. If a program is implemented poorly or even moderately well, its goals are unlikely to be achieved, or the results will be less significant.

With high quality implementation, success is more likely. Effectively implemented programs stand a better chance of achieving intended outcomes and producing positive outcomes for children.

Numerous frameworks can guide implementation. Two of the most widely recognized in the human service and education fields are Plan-Do-Check-Act[3](PDCA)—also referred to as Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) or the Deming Cycle—and the National Implementation Research Network’s implementation stages.[4] Cross-cutting themes that unify these frameworks include the following:

  • Determine the desired result
  • Plan, plan, plan
  • Use feedback loops, monitor and learn continuously and at all levels
  • Recognize that work occurs simultaneously; implementation is not a linear process
  • Collect and use data
  • Be flexible and adaptive
  • Collaborate with those internal and external to the agency or organization

This guide uses PDCA to frame program design and planning and discusses additional insights and information from implementation science.


[1] Kagan, S. L., Tarrant, K., & Kauerz, K. (2012). Planning an early childhood system: Policies and principles matter. In S. Kagan, & K. Kauerz (Eds.), Early childhood systems: Transforming early learning (pp.137–154). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

[2] Durlak, J. A. (2011). The importance of implementation for research, practice, and policy. Child Trends research brief. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved from

[3] W. Edwards Deming Institute. The Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) Cycle [Web page]. Retrieved from

[4] National Implementation Research Network. (n.d.). Module 4: Implementation stages [Web page]. In Active Implementation Module Series. Retrieved from