Early Childhood Systems Building Resource Guide

The federal government has stimulated progress for young children’s early learning and development by providing federally funded initiatives. Some of these initiatives only provide one-time funding. Taking on this work without a long-term funding source can raise significant issues for states in terms of sustainability planning and implementation.

At the same time, there is a better understanding of the educational, economic, and scientific bases for early learning and child development, and public understanding of the need for strong early learning services is growing. Early childhood leaders and coalitions are working hard to design and carry out sustainability plans that will help them sustain progress and reach their goals. This guide explains what sustainability planning and implementation is, lays out process steps for getting there, helps you determine core functions to include, discusses considerations for staff and partner involvement, and identifies challenges to execution.

Definition of Sustainability

For the purpose of this guide, sustainability means the continuation and adaptation of early learning services, initiatives, policies, and systems over time in support of specific outcomes and goals. The focus might be on a particular initiative, a program or set of programs, financing, policy, an organization, or a system.

Sustainability planning. This is the process by which stakeholders and partners create a roadmap for deciding what, why, and how to sustain so that policies, initiatives, and programs are continuously improved, adapted, or discontinued to achieve intended outcomes and goals. The process is similar to strategic planning and, ideally, sustainability planning is included in strategic planning. The resources in  Systems Guide 2: Strategic Plans are designed to be useful to the sustainability planning process. 

Sustainability planning is about making decisions to change or discontinue efforts so you can allow resources (including time and effort) to be directed toward success. Creating a sustainability plan can increase buy-in and strengthen everyone’s understanding of the efforts needed to keep the work going and improving. The plan can also be used to share progress with potential funders and partners, and as a guide to support the ongoing management of the work. Sustainability planning may take place within the course of both predictable and unpredictable changes in leadership, budgets, and the policy environment.

Sustainability implementation. While sustainability planning is key to clarifying common goals and the steps needed to reach those goals, achieving sustainability over time depends on everyone’s willingness to work together toward those goals. This means that all parties have to focus on building trusting relationships, developing open communication channels, consistently sharing reliable data, and connecting resources. 

Sustainability implementation is the ongoing work connected to the sustainability plan. As noted previously, ideally sustainability planning is part of strategic planning, and in these cases sustainability implementation should be a key part of the implementation of strategic planning. While the process of putting together the plan helps to solidify stakeholder commitment to the work and the work itself, moving into implementation mode requires significant, ongoing time from everyone involved, with continuing check-in and progress reporting, as well as modifications as needed.