Understanding Systems Building

Technical Assistance in Systems Building for State Leaders

Technical assistance to support systems building, including strategic planning, is available through the Child Care State Capacity Building Center and may be available through other federal technical assistance centers. Please check with your State Systems Specialist for more information.

This chapter of the Early Childhood Systems Building Resource Guide (SBRG) is a starting point for state and territory leaders who are interested in early childhood systems building. Beginning with definition and methods of building early childhood systems, the chapter also covers system integration and common themes in systems building. The chapter includes examples of both systems building initiatives and early childhood systems in states and localities as well as resources and tools that can be used to assess the strengths and opportunities in an early childhood system.

Why Build a System?

The science of early childhood development and early learning makes clear the importance and complexity of caring for and educating young children from infancy through the early elementary years, or birth through age 8. Across numerous disciplines of study, research demonstrates that children benefit most from high-quality experiences that consistently build on each other over time, especially when their families are valued and engaged in the experiences.[1] Yet the systems with which children and families interact are significantly fragmented.[2]

To apply what is being learned from science about caring for and educating young children, and to address the challenges of fragmentation, many states and communities seek to build and scale equitable early childhood systems to help achieve positive results for young children so they can reach their full potential. To this end, states are using systems building as a way of thinking and acting that helps optimize this complex environment and scale long-term systemic change and impact.

What is Early Childhood Systems Building?

Building and integrating early childhood systems stems from a goal to improve opportunities for children and families and best use resources, attention, and funding. “The goal of such efforts is to institutionalize programs and policies into durable systems. Although the precise efforts vary, those engaged in them share the recognition of the burdens of an incoherent nonsystem … [it requires] thinking that transcends the provision of any individual program and considers early childhood services broadly and comprehensively.”[3] This work also requires participatory and equitable engagement with the families who use the services, the workforce that organizes and delivers the services, and others—such as business leaders—who depend on the services, so that the state system is equitable and reflects the community members it is designed to serve.

As the largest single funder of early and school-age care and education services, the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), is itself is a systems approach that incorporates early care and education service financing, quality improvement, and supply building efforts with attention to important issues linkages to other services at the state and local levels. CCDF grantees, supported by the federal Office of Child Care (OCC), are well positioned to coordinate with other agencies and/or programs to

  • engage with families in their states and territories to identify priorities and gaps that could be addressed with CCDF-funded programs;
  • equitably increase accessibility and affordability of high-quality early and school-age care and education services;
  • support quality investments to promote continuous quality improvement of both programs and workforce;
  • support families and children, especially those with multiple barriers to success, by helping address physical health, mental health, early care and education, and access to comprehensive services; and
  • coordinate data collection, reporting, and evaluation to improve early and school-age care and education services.

Defining a System

“A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole".[4] A system’s overall purpose or goal is achieved through the actions and interactions of its components. Its characteristics can include:

  • Numerous subsystems: Each component in a system is usually a “system within a system,” with its own set of interacting programs, policies, and strategies that meet certain beneficiary needs.
  • Part of a larger system: The system is an open system, meaning it interacts with other systems, has permeable boundaries, and is affected by its external environment.
  • Essential interconnections: A system has a goal or function that is best achieved when its components function well together. More colloquially, with systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • A “loosely coupled” system: Health, education, or human service systems generally are loosely coupled but can be aligned and connected to build coherence of purpose.

Defining Systems Building

Systems initiatives are organized efforts to improve a system and its impacts.[5] They can be publicly or privately funded, or a combination of the two. Systems initiatives in the early childhood field may have different labels, such as systems building, systems change, or systems reform. Yet systems initiatives are best understood by their focus or by the areas of the system they are trying to improve. Specifically, an early childhood systems initiative might focus on one or more of these five areas:

  • Context: Improve the political environment that surrounds the early childhood system so it produces the policy and funding changes needed to create and sustain it.
  • Components: Establish high-performing early learning programs and services within the system that produce equitable results for system beneficiaries (e.g., children, families).
  • Connections: Create strong and effective linkages across early childhood system components that further improve results for system beneficiaries.
  • Infrastructure: Develop the ongoing supports that systems need to function effectively and equitably, and with quality.
  • Scale: Ensure a comprehensive system is equitably available to all intended beneficiaries to produce broad and inclusive results for system beneficiaries.

Shown in figure 1 below, these five areas comprise the aspects of a system that, if developed or advanced, can produce broad impacts for the system’s intended beneficiaries, including children and others. Systems initiatives do not have to focus on all five areas, although most focus on more than one area simultaneously. They do not, however, typically place an equal emphasis on all focus areas at once. Some areas receive more attention than others at any given point in time, depending on where the system’s needs are greatest and the opportunities that are available.

Figure 1. Five Areas of the Early Childhood System

What it Means to Build an Early Childhood System

Early childhood systems building is the ongoing process of improving the five areas outlined above. Due to the fragmented nature of the various systems that support young children, many states and territories are also working to build coherence between these five areas so that the infrastructure (financing, governance, and professional development), programs (Head Start, child care, early intervention, prekindergarten, home visiting, and other health and human services) and sectors (public, business, philanthropy, and nonprofit) of early childhood operate more as a whole. The widely recognized and desired systemic effects are program effectiveness, equity, coherence, and sustainability with the ultimate outcome of benefiting children and families.[6]

Learnings, Tools, and State Examples for Building an Early Childhood System

Early childhood systems building is messy and complex work that can be difficult to understand, explain, and improve. The Early Childhood Systems Work Group (ECSWG) developed a tool to assist states in planning for and implementing systems that can provide an integrated continuum of policies, services, and programs so that children and families thrive.[7] Since the development of this tool, considerable new effort has gone into recognizing the importance of centering the voices of families as well as infusing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion as core features of systems building and a critical outcome. This enhanced focus is illustrated in the graphic in figure 2 below, used with permission from the BUILD Initiative.

Figure 2. Systems Work in the Early Childhood Context

What is the purpose of this tool and graphic?

The purpose of this tool and graphic is to help state and community leaders improve the capacity of their early childhood systems. Comprehensive early childhood systems require work across the fields of health, mental health, and nutrition; early learning; supports for economic self-sufficiency and family supports to achieve agreed-upon outcomes for thriving children and families. This work includes deep inclusion of and partnership with families, providers, and leaders in the community who bring forward their expertise and experience across the state’s racial, geographic, cultural, and linguistic communities.

“The age span—from birth through age 8—is not a developmental period with discrete boundaries; rather, it is a continuum that encompasses individual variations in development and that begins before birth and continues after age 8 into the rest of childhood and beyond. It is an important window for children because of the troubling disconnect between the disjointed systems that serve them and the rapid pace of their development as their experiences profoundly shape their long-term trajectories.” — Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation[10]

“Systems are everywhere—they can be ecological, mechanical, organizational, political, cultural, and so on.”

— Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization

Who are the intended users of this tool and graphic?

The tool and graphic were designed to assist facilitators working with state or community partners from multiple sectors to plan for and manage integrated early childhood systems. Partners might include leaders from the governor’s or mayor’s office; a Children’s Cabinet or a State Advisory Council on Early Childhood Education and Care; relevant state, county, and local agencies; nongovernmental agencies; family members; members of the early childhood workforce; others in the early childhood policy and professional community; and those who depend on a strong early childhood system, such as business and civic leaders.

In addition to the ECSWG tool, there is another resource that provides a source of learning for states as they work to reform their systems for the benefit of children and families. Sharon Lynn Kagan and Kristie Kauerz created a seminal volume of experiences and writings from state leaders about how to create early childhood systems that transcend politics and economics to serve the needs of all young children. The book, Early Childhood Systems: Transforming Early Learning, includes scholarship and practical examples of systems building efforts taking place in the field.[8]

Conceptualizing an early childhood system is important work happening in states. There is no single path, roadmap, or blueprint for creating an early childhood system. What works in one state for one systems-building purpose may not work in another, or even in the same state for different systems-building purposes. “States and communities each find their own path. It would not be possible to develop an approach that recommends one linear process. System building is dynamic and can occur in fits and starts or double back and start over.”[9] What remains paramount is the strategic intent and specificity with which states design and implement an early childhood system.


[1] Allen, L., & Kelly, B. B. (Eds.). (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A Unifying Foundation. The National Academies Press

[2] Kagan, S. L., & Cohen, N. E. (1997). Not by chance: Creating an early care and education system for America’s children. Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.

[3] Kagan, S. L., & Kauerz, K. (Eds.). (2012). Early childhood systems: Transforming early learning. Teachers College Press.

[4] Coffman, J. (2007). A Framework for evaluating systems initiatives. BUILD Initiative. https://cupdf.com/document/a-framework-for-evaluating-systems-framework-for-evaluating-systems-initiatives.html

[5] Coffman, J. (2007). A Framework for evaluating systems initiatives. BUILD Initiatives https://cupdf.com/document/a-framework-for-evaluating-systems-framework-for-evaluating-systems-initiatives.html

[6] Kagan, S. L., & Kauerz, K. (Eds.). (2012). Early childhood systems: Transforming early learning. Teachers College Press.

[7] Early Childhood Systems Work Group. (2014). Comprehensive early childhood systems-building: A tool to inform discussions on collaborative, cross-sector planning. BUILD Initiative. https://buildinitiative.org/resource-library/comprehensive-early-childhood-system-building-a-tool-to-inform-discussions-on-collaborative-cross-sector-planning/.

[8] Kagan, S. L., & Kauerz, K. (Eds.). (2012). Early childhood systems: Transforming early learning. Teachers College Press.

[9] Early Childhood Systems Work Group. (2014). Comprehensive early childhood systems-building: A tool to inform discussions on collaborative, cross-sector planning. BUILD Initiative. https://buildinitiative.org/resource-library/comprehensive-early-childhood-system-building-a-tool-to-inform-discussions-on-collaborative-cross-sector-planning/

[10] Allen, L., & Kelly, B. B. (Eds.). (2015).). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A Unifying foundation.The National Academies Press.