Why Build a System?

About Puzzle PieceThe 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 when their families are valued and engaged, and from high-quality experiences that build on each other consistently over time[1]. Yet the systems with which children and families interact are significantly fragmented[2].To apply what we are learning from science about caring for and educating young children, and to address the challenges of fragmentation, many States[3] and communities are building and scaling early childhood systems to help achieve positive results for young children so that they can reach their full human potential. To this end, States are using systems building as a way of thinking and acting that helps them optimize this complex environment and scale long-term systemic change and impact.

What is Early Childhood System Building?

Defining a System[4]

“A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole.” A system’s overall purpose or goal is achieved through the actions and interactions of its components. A system’s 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.

  • Interconnections are essential for optimal results: 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, and human service systems generally are loosely coupled but can be aligned and connected to build coherence of purpose.

Defining Systems Building[5]

Systems initiatives are organized efforts to improve a system and its impacts. 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 the following five areas:

  • Context: Improving the political context that surrounds the system so it produces the policy and funding changes needed to create and sustain it.
  • Components: Establishing high-performance programs and services that produce results for children and families.
  • Connections: Creating strong linkages across system components that further improve results for children and families.
  • Infrastructure: Developing the supports systems needed to function effectively and with quality.
  • Scale: Ensuring a comprehensive system is available to as many people as possible.

Coffman, J. (n.d.), A systems building theory of change. [PowerPoint Slides].

These five areas comprise the aspects of a system that, if developed or advanced, can produce broad impacts for the system’s intended beneficiaries. Systems initiatives do not have to focus on all five areas, although most focus on several areas 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.

“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 B-8: A Unifying Foundation

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 all the various systems that support young children, many States 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, pre-k, 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 help States plan for and implement systems that can provide an integrated continuum of policies, services, and programs so that children and families thrive[7]. The tool is based on a framework and includes a graphic to better visualize systems work.

A diagram with three circles of content. The innermost circe is labeled Outcome: Thriving Children & Families. This circle is formed by three ovals coming together labeled Early Learning & Development, Health, and Family Leadership & Support. The outermost circle contains the terms Define & Coordinate Leadership, Finance Strategically, Enhance & Align Standards, Create & Support Improvement Strategies, Ensure Accountability, and Recruit & Engage Stakeholders.
Early Childhood Systems Work Group. (2006).

  • What is the purpose of this tool?

    The purpose of this tool is to help state and community leaders improve the capacity of their early childhood system. Comprehensive early childhood systems require work across the fields of health, early learning and development, and family support in order to achieve agreed-upon goals for thriving children and families.

  • Who are the intended users of this tool?

    This tool is designed to assist facilitators working with state or community stakeholders from multiple sectors to plan for and manage integrated early childhood systems. Stakeholders might include leaders from the governor or mayor’s office; a children’s cabinet or a state early learning advisory council; relevant state, county and local agencies; nongovernmental agencies; and others in the early childhood policy and professional community.

A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole.  A system’s overall purpose or goal is achieved through the actions and interactions of its components.” – Julia Coffman, A Framework for Evaluating Systems Initiatives.

While 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.

In addition to the ECSWG tool, there two other sources with robust state examples of early childhood systems building. These books provide 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 leaders in States about how to create early childhood systems that transcend the politics and economics to serve needs of all young children. The book, Early Childhood Systems: Transforming Early Learning, includes cutting edge scholarship and practical examples of systems-building efforts taking place in the field.

  • The BUILD Initiative, with the help of many of the country’s early childhood leaders, has produced this E-Book, Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families. Through this E-Book, they share learning from the initial implementation of the Early Learning Challenge efforts—highlighting experiences, trends, and reflections stemming from the significant contribution of the federal investment in this strategic work

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 system-building purpose may not work in another, or in the same state for different system 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[8].” (Group, 2006) But what remains paramount is the strategic intent and specificity with which states design and implement an early childhood system. (Kagan & Kauerz, 2012). For more information about developing strategic intent, please see the next section entitled State Systems Guides



[1] National Academies of Science. (2015).Transforming the workforce for children ages B-8: A Unifying Foundation.  Washington, DC: 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. New Haven, CT: Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

[3] 45 CFR 98.2 defines State as “any of the States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the United States, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and includes Tribes unless otherwise specified.”

[4] Coffman, J. (2007). A Framework for evaluating systems initiatives. Boston, MA: The BUILD Initiative.

[5] Ibid.

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

[7] Early Childhood Systems Work Group. (2006). Comprehensive early childhood systems-building: A tool to inform discussions on collaborative, cross-sector planning. Retrieved from http://www.buildinitiative.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/ECSWG%20Systems%20Planning%20Tool_2014.pdf.

[8] Ibid.