Since early in our organization’s history, Start Early has partnered across states and communities to shape, study, advocate for and enact early childhood programs, research and policies that support young children and their families. Over the past year and a half, we have engaged people from within our broad early childhood ecosystem – including from across the Educare Network – to develop our first-ever research and policy agenda that describes priorities identified by parents and practitioners. Families and staff across home visiting, Early Head Start and Head Start, child care, Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education programs shared insight about critical federal policies that could best support their families and could ensure all young children thrive.

Read Agenda

Core Beliefs

  • Family and practitioner voices must inform federal policy and related research priorities.
  • Researchers, policymakers and advocates must ensure their efforts reinforce and build on one other.
  • Equitable and participatory research methods must be implemented in collaboration with parents and practitioners.
  • Publications, resources and tools should use communication methods that are accessible and readily reach families, practitioners and communities

Read the Shaping Futures Together: An Early Childhood Research & Policy Agenda

View on Mobile

En español

Research & Evaluation Teams & Collaborators

Each year the Illinois General Assembly passes legislation that can have an impact on families, or the organizations in our communities providing early childhood or related supportive services to families. Start Early leads on some of these legislative changes, often in coalition with others, and in other cases we contribute our early childhood lens and expertise to support the efforts of another lead organization. The 2023 Legislative Summary provides a listing of those bills that became law in the spring 2023 session that we thought would be relevant to families with young children and the field.  We hope that this is a resource you will download and share with colleagues and families alike. We are happy to provide additional information about any of these initiatives or connect you with other advocates where needed. Initiatives that were led by Start Early are marked *. 

Enrollment and retention data have long suggested the home visiting field could do more to meet the needs and desires of families, and workforce data point to challenges finding and sustaining a highly-qualified workforce. Start Early’s Illinois Home Visiting Caregiver and Provider Feedback Project used an organic, mixed-methods approach to understand what families and providers see as needed improvements to the home visiting system, and from this input, created precise recommendations.

The findings of this multi-year project carry significance for programs, model developers, researchers, systems leaders and policy makers. By actively engaging with the recommendations, leaders at all levels can ensure that resources are optimally allocated and can drive transformative change, paving the way for a more responsive, equitable and effective system that uplifts families and nurtures the healthy development of young children.

We encourage members of the home visiting field – including funders, model developers, researchers, program leaders, home visitors, and family participants – to read this report and identify the levers for change that they can act upon to strengthen and improve how the home visiting system supports caregivers and providers.

For questions about this report, please reach out to

Key Recommendations

National Models

  • Create curriculum, program materials, and use language that is more inclusive and representative of all caregivers, including gender non-conforming or non-binary caregivers, male caregivers, and caregivers who are not parents.
  • Embed and allow for more individualization in service delivery to meet families’ needs; prioritize new and strengths-based measure of the quality and effectiveness of programs, such as parental efficacy and length of retention.
  • Reduce educational requirements and create additional flexibilities for programs to hire individuals without a Bachelor’s degree, including developing guidance for how to hire former parent participants, in order to address vacancies and to reflect competency-based skills.


Federal Agencies & Funders of Home Visiting

  • Coordinate federal funding streams and offer states added guidance on braiding across different sources (e.g. Head Start/Early Head Start, Title IV-E, TANF, Medicaid, etc.) for more efficient state home visiting systems. The Office of Head Start and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) should coordinate on allocation of funding, funding timelines and program requirements to ensure that state systems are able to plan around the braiding of these funding streams.


Illinois Agencies & Funders of Home Visiting

  • Identify opportunities to extend and individualize services to engage a broad array of family needs and desires, including creating cross-model guidance on enhancements and modifications for priority populations.
  • Align funding mechanisms and administrative requirements to alleviate the burden on programs, including streamlining data collection, compensation, monitoring and other requirements.
  • Increase supports for programs surrounding workforce recruitment and retention, including implementing cross-funder compensation targets, hiring supports including sample job descriptions, pay differentials for bilingual staff.
  • Increase access to supports including infant and early childhood mental health consultation.

We are excited to share our annual Start Early 2023 Year in Review, which showcases and celebrates accomplishments and growth from the last fiscal year (July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023).

In 2023, we continued to promote equitable access to early learning programs and services that positively impact children and families.

2023 Year in Review: Promoting Equitable Access to Opportunity

View on mobile

Start Early influences nearly every aspect of the early education system through our dedicated and holistic approach at local, state, and federal levels. Our emphasis on collaborating with parents and community leaders helps us provide young children with a strong, all-encompassing foundation to enable the most positive growth outcomes.

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration and efforts of our partners. With your help, Start Early will continue to work to create a sustainable early learning system that meets the needs of today’s youngest learners and the little ones of tomorrow.

Please join me in celebrating the release of Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation: The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan. Since its launch in June 2023, it has been my honor to serve as Co-Chair of the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force, and I am grateful to my fellow Task Force members for their contributions and to Capita and the Aspen Institute for creating a forum for this important work. We owe the success of these recommendations not only to their hard work but also to the insights that were so generously shared with us by caregivers and other early childhood, health, climate and systems leaders through listening sessions.

Start Early believes that our early childhood system should be high-quality, equitable and responsive—and climate-resilient. Adapting and expanding our child- and family-facing services in the years ahead is especially critical to our ability to support those most impacted by climate disruption: pregnant people, infants, and young children, particularly those with disabilities and those impacted by environmental injustice and racism in America.

Together, the early childhood and climate change mitigation fields must look to the strengths and protective factors offered by our early childhood system to support these high-priority populations in the context of a changing climate. The challenge of climate change is daunting, but well-resourced, accessible early childhood systems are key in helping young children and their caregivers prepare and adapt. Child- and family-serving programs are key resources in both helping children and their families remain safe amid climate emergencies and helping them prepare for the future of our changed climate by building resilience, navigating information and resources and strengthening community networks.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive noteworthy developments in state and federal early childhood news, policy trends and stories highlighting work across our network.

Sign Up

As you review the Task Force’s recommendations, I hope you’ll take them as both a call to action and an invitation for partnership. The actions proposed for policymakers; federal, state, and local systems change leaders; funders; and researchers can only be meaningfully implemented in true partnership with the families and early care and learning providers. As we collectively face the daunting challenges associated with climate change, our policies and resiliency planning efforts must be rooted in bidirectional relationships with caregivers of young children; we must center their voices and experiences and collaboratively develop solutions that work.

The parents and caregivers who shared their experiences with us made it clear: even as coordinated, systems-level solutions begin to emerge, parents and providers have already been innovating and identifying their own solutions to keeping pregnant people, infants, and young children safe and happy in a changing climate. Let’s partner with them to advance these innovations and move forward together to co-design a more climate resilient future for our nation’s families, expectant parents and youngest children.

We are setting a path for expanding and improving early learning and care programs and services in Chicago through research- and community-driven policies. Through this Chicago-focused Early/Head Start Research Agenda, we hope to:

  • Elevate the voices and priorities of the communities that we serve
  • Partner with staff internally at Start Early through Research Practice Partnerships to support data needs and practices, and externally with teachers, parents, and community partners through field facing projects to support program progress
  • Drive collaboration by revamping and reinforcing the ways that Start Early’s local, state and national efforts align

Key Components

Through connecting with Early/Head Start program staff and parents to learn about their areas of interest to help support Early/Head Start programs in Chicago, three priorities emerged that create the backbone for the Chicago Early/Head Start Research Agenda:

  • Advancing recruitment and enrollment practices for Early/Head Start programs
  • Exploring additional ways to support the Early/Head Start workforce
  • Improving inclusion and equity in classrooms

This research agenda is a living document. There are potential research questions proposed that fit into the three categories above, but we are committed to connect with staff and parents in Early/Head Start programs throughout the development, implementation, and interpretation phases of projects that emerge from this work. We will use their expertise to guide research questions and priorities.

We are interested in connecting with partners and funders currently doing or interested in doing similar work. Together we will learn from staff and families to make improvements to early childhood education and care for everyone!

Research & Evaluation Team & Collaborators

The Educare Research Agenda on Advancing Racial Equity

The Educare Research Agenda on Advancing Racial Equity is connected to the Chicago Early Head Start Agenda through our shared commitment to improving equity in practice and policy for Early Head Start and Head Start programs. As teams, we are looking to collaborate on research projects, specifically focused in Chicago, that are informed by family and staff voice to lead to actionable change in early childhood care and education.

Two girls playing together
corner square pie shape-grid

Home visiting is a voluntary service designed to ensure that families with young children have the supports and resources they want and need to thrive. They aim to strengthen caregiver-child relationships; promote maternal, infant, and early childhood physical, mental, and emotional health; and link families to community resources and services through cross system collaboration.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) presents an opportunity to strengthen prevention efforts like home visiting and to expand them to more families. FFPSA is federal legislation that reorients child welfare towards prevention and seeks to reduce the use of foster care. Since we know the power of home visiting in preventing child welfare involvement, bringing it to scale could be critical in fulfilling Family First’s goal. Many states are centering their Family First prevention plans around voluntary home visiting, and some are creating pathways for families to access these services in their communities, without child welfare involvement.

In a new brief, experts from Start Early and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago outline ways to scale up home visiting capacity through Family First. The brief explores key opportunities that have been identified as Family First is implemented and provides recommendations to strengthen collaboration between child welfare and home visiting programs at the federal, state, and local levels, including:

  • Scale Up Home Visiting for Additional Capacity
  • Partner and Collaborate Across Child Welfare & Home Visiting for Collective Impact
  • Implement Home Visiting to Model Fidelity
  • Orient Philosophies and Policies around Prevention
  • Support a Diverse Community-based Workforce that Meets Families’ Needs

Center Family Engagement

At the 2022 National Home Visiting Summit hosted by Start Early, there was a strong emphasis on the connections between home visiting and FFPSA. The focus on Family First at the Summit reflects the interest across the country to further lean into systems partnerships between home visiting and child welfare agencies to create structural conditions that provide access to supports without stigma or blame. In this way, we can acknowledge and address the inequities that harm children and families of color and lead to further disparities and disproportionate representation in the child welfare system. Read the full report.

Learn more about Start Early’s resources and learning opportunities for the home visiting field.

Thank you to Yasmin Grewal-Kök, Clare Anderson, Anna Gurolnick, Charlotte Goodell, and Clinton Boyd who all contributed to this report.

More Like This

Many states and communities are working hard to create cross-sector early childhood systems that children and families experience as equitable, supportive, accessible, and high-quality. Start Early and Child Trends have partnered to identify what building blocks are needed to create such systems.

Using a human-centered design approach, between 2021 – 2023, we spoke to state systems’ representatives, researchers, family advocates, and technical assistance providers from across the country to understand how their systems were working to promote equity and center families’ experiences, and what resources they may need to engage in such work. To help augment these discussions, we listened to recorded interviews and reviewed more than 25 early childhood systems frameworks, toolkits, and action plans from multiple organizations, states, and communities across the country.

The briefs in this series, called Conversation Starters, offer a guiding framework that outlines an approach to co-defining the success of an early childhood system in terms of how it is experienced by families. The systems builders consulted in this publication each expressed a clear vision for the kind of system they were trying to co-create with families and what they wanted families to experience when interacting with their system. But none of them—not even those from systems that are deservedly held up as shining examples—felt that they had it all figured out. They continue to strive for new ways to make their system more family-centric, more equitable, and more transparent.

Read the Conversation Starters

Dive deeper into this work by reading Conversation Starter #1 – Defining a Family-Centric Early Childhood System and Conversation Starter #2 – Authentic Family Engagement in Family-Centric Early Childhood Systems Building.


Note: Maia C. Connors was Start Early’s lead author/researcher and partner with the Child Trends team. This Conversation Starter was produced with support from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. We are grateful to our respondents: both the systems builders and the researchers and technical assistance providers who support them. We also thank Sarah Daily, Colleen Murphy, Judy Reidt-Parker, Sheetal Singh, and Kathy Stohr for their feedback on earlier drafts. A particular thank you to Katherine Paschall, the lead author from Child Trends for her partnership in this work. Maia Connors was with Start Early at the time this piece was written. At the time of publication, she was with Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

Regardless of zip code or family income, when welcoming a new baby, all parents and families could benefit from additional encouragement and support. That is why Illinois is working to build the necessary public infrastructure and funding systems to scale Universal Newborn Support Systems (UNSS) that provide free, voluntary short-term home visiting and referral services to every family at the birth of a new baby to make connections to the supportive services and resources they may need and want.

While universal newborn support services are common in other high-income nations, it is still an emerging concept in the U.S. Scaling UNSS in Illinois will require a cohesive messaging to build greater awareness and support for these services and systems, which is why Start Early has created a messaging toolkit to support advocates, systems and program leaders, other family-facing providers, and lawmaker champions in communicating the story of UNSS, including explaining why these services are critically important to the future well-being of Illinois families and children.

We hope that these resources will be helpful to you as you share information about UNSS with your communities, and advocate for greater support for UNSS in our state.

Universal Newborn Support Systems

Messaging Toolkit

Successfully scaling UNSS to additional Illinois communities, and eventually statewide, requires cohesive messaging to build awareness of UNSS interventions, the opportunity and necessity to leverage dedicated funding streams to sustain these systems, and the connection between UNSS expansion and to larger state vision for Illinois children and families.

The resources contained in this toolkit are intended to support advocates, state systems leaders, UNSS program leaders, other family-facing providers, and lawmaker champions in communicating the story of UNSS, including explaining why these services are critically important to the future well-being of Illinois families and children. This toolkit is model-agnostic; it aims to speak generally about UNSS as an approach rather than focusing on particular programs or models, recognizing that individual communities will need flexibility to choose and implement models that fit their particular needs. In building this toolkit, Start Early hopes that the resources can serve as a jumping-off point for various stakeholders to build upon the messages and materials within for outreach with additional audiences.

  • Read–Familiarize yourself with the general framing of UNSS
  • Add–Adapt and make additions that speak to your particular audience or perspective
  • Share–Share these general materials alongside more detailed or nuanced messaging

Informational Videos


Parent Perspectives on UNSS

Team & Collaborators

This report was prepared thanks to many individuals and organizations that generously provided time and expertise, research, consultation and other supports. Special thanks to: Brian Rolling, Vincent Alvarez, Claudia Valencia, Tajae Sutton, Samantha Price, Kali Huber, Claire Lankford, Dr. Shelly Shallat, Dr. Mofesola Modupe, Family Connects International, the Chicago Department of Public Health, EverThrive Illinois, and the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Special thanks to: This toolkit and the messaging materials contained within were prepared with generous support from the Steans Family Foundation.

We are excited to share our annual 2022 Year in Review, which showcases and celebrates accomplishments and growth from the last fiscal year (July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022).

In 2022, we celebrated our 40th anniversary and continued to expand and refine our services to children and families.

Through our innovative and comprehensive work at local, state and federal levels, Start Early impacted nearly every facet of the early education system with a deliberate focus on reaching more young children through quality early learning and care experiences that can set them up for a lifetime of health and success.

2022 Year in Review

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration and efforts of our partners. We are thankful to all of our supporters over the past 40 years for their help in making this work a reality. We are champions for early learning, and together, we can transform lives.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive news, helpful tools and learn about how you can help our youngest learners.

Sign Up

Little girl with blue headband
corner square pie shape-grid