Early Childhood Development & Learning

CDF works to ensure that every child has a Head Start and a Strong Start in life by ensuring access to quality early childhood and development opportunities. Children’s brains are developing rapidly in their first 5 years as they build a foundation for all future outcomes in school and in life. Research shows that investments in quality early childhood programs generate an average annual return of 7-10 percent on every dollar invested.

Despite what we know about the importance of high-quality early childhood opportunities, far too many children in the United States lack access to quality care, especially poor children and other vulnerable children who stand to benefit the most. Access to high-quality early childhood opportunities is all too often determined by parental income and geography; and federal programs designed to support high-quality early learning and development are too underfunded to serve all eligible children.

CDF is working to change this situation by supporting policies that guarantee that all poor and vulnerable children have access to a high quality continuum of early childhood programs from birth through age 5 that can comprehensively address their needs and the needs of their families. By working to ensure access to quality home visiting, Early Head Start, Head Start, quality child care, preschool and full-day kindergarten, CDF is helping to ensure that all young children have a strong start to life that can propel them to a productive life in school and beyond.

Our Work

Advocating for policies and programs that guarantee all children have a Head Start and a Strong Start in life.


CDF is committed to ensuring all children are guaranteed a Head Start and a Strong Start in life, which starts with access to a continuum of high-quality early learning and development opportunities from birth through age 5 that meet the needs of children and their families. This includes access to evidence-based, voluntary home visiting programs; Early Head Start and Head Start; high-quality, affordable child care; high-quality preschool; and full-day kindergarten.

Home Visiting

Supporting access to voluntary professional services and support for mothers and families with young children.

Early childhood home visiting programs provide voluntary, in-home services to expectant mothers and families with infants and young children. Nurses, social workers, early childhood education specialists, or other trained paraprofessionals, meet with families in their homes to advise them on the health and development their children and connect them to community services and supports. Evidence-based home visitation services produce such measurable outcomes for children and families, as improved health, school readiness, academic achievement, parental involvement and economic self-sufficiency, and reduced child maltreatment, injuries, and juvenile delinquency.

The Affordable Care Act established a federal funding stream for voluntary evidence-based home visiting programs in 2010; however, due to a lack of funding, only a limited number of children and families are able to benefit from the program. CDF supports expanding investments in quality home visiting to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and families.

Head Start and Early Head Start

Supporting increased access to, and quality in, comprehensive federal early childhood programs for infants and toddlers and young children.

Angie's Story

Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded, locally administered programs that provide quality, comprehensive early childhood development and learning services to preschool aged children, infants, and toddlers. Head Start supports development of the whole child, promoting school readiness by providing educational, health, nutritional and social services to enrolled children -- while also supporting their families. Despite serving over a million low-income children, fewer than half of eligible children are able to benefit from Head Start and less than 5 percent participate in Early Head Start.

CDF supports Head Start’s mission of providing comprehensive, quality early childhood services to children and their families, and advocates for increased funding for the program so more eligible children and families can benefit.

Head Start has proven results. Children who participate are school ready, less likely to need special education, and more likely to graduate high school and go on to college. 

Child Care

Ensuring working families and their children have access to safe, affordable and high-quality child care

Working families need access to high-quality, affordable child care that meets their children’s developmental needs; however the high-cost of care creates a barrier to access for many families. While the federal government provides supports to families to help defray the cost of care, both through the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), these supports are not sufficient to meet the needs of all the families they are designed to serve. Fewer than 1 in 4 eligible children under 5 benefit from CCDBG and the non-refundable CDCTC provides no benefit to the families that most need help and minimal support to middle-income families who still struggle to pay for quality care. Additionally, a well-trained and competitively compensated workforce is necessary to provide the quality of care children and parents deserve, but child care workers are paid less than parking lot attendants in 30 states. CDF is committed to working with our partners to ensure that all children have access to affordable, high-quality child care that supports their early development and their parents’ abilities to work.


Promoting access to high-quality preschool opportunities for low-income 3-and 4-year-olds and others with special needs.

High-quality preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds improve school readiness and facilitate a range of positive outcomes in both school and life. These programs are especially beneficial for low-income children and other vulnerable children, including those who are homeless, in foster care, are learning English as a second language, or have disabilities. Unfortunately, access to preschool is often determined by parental income, and the lottery of geography and quality varies widely. While some states, such as Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Georgia have prioritized access to high-quality preschool, many other states serve fewer children with weaker quality standards. CDF is committed to working to ensure all children, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, have access to quality preschool programs that prepare them for school and life.

Full-Day Kindergarten

Ensuring that children receive the opportunity to attend full-day kindergarten before entering first grade.

Full-day kindergarten boosts children’s cognitive learning, creative problem solving, and social competence, and helps sustain gains made in early childhood programs. Access to full-day kindergarten is not guaranteed for all 5-year-old children in the country. Only 11 states and D.C. require that their districts offer full-day kindergarten and five do not require any offering of kindergarten at all. In poor economic times, these programs not protected by statute can be targeted by districts for cuts to save money, particularly in states that do not fund full-day kindergarten at the same level as first grade. As momentum for investments in young children continues to build across the country; states and districts must ensure that they have full-day kindergarten in statute as part of their quality continuum of early childhood services so children do not miss the critical step between preschool and first grade. 

Data and Publications

CDF publications relevant to early childhood development and learning.

Child Care Access to Resources for Early-Learning Act

High-quality child care that supports children’s healthy development is crucial for working families. Quality early childhood development programs can help mitigate the negative effects of poverty and create lifelong benefits for America’s most vulnerable children. Unfortunately, the high costs of child care can be prohibitive for many families.

March 2, 2016


State data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 17, 2015 reveal that child poverty in 2014 remains at record high levels in the states. Children are the poorest age group, and the poorest are children of color and those under age six.

October 28, 2015

Child Poverty in America 2014 State Fact Sheet

State data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 17, 2015 reveal that child poverty in 2014 remains at record high levels in the states. Children are the poorest age group, and the poorest are children of color and those under age six.

September 22, 2015

Child Poverty in America 2014 National Fact Sheet

Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2015 reveal that child poverty declined slightly in 2014, from 21.5 percent in 2013 to 21.1 percent in 2014. While child poverty rates declined for Hispanic, White and Asian children, Black children saw an increase and continue to have the highest child poverty rate. Despite some decreases child poverty among all children remains at shamefully high levels. One in five children – 15.5 million – were poor in 2014, and children remain the poorest age group in the country.

September 17, 2015

FY2016 House and Senate Budget Fact Sheet

Ending Child Poverty Now

For the first time, this report shows that by investing an additional 2 percent of the federal budget into existing programs and policies that increase employment, make work pay, and ensure children’s basic needs are met, the nation could reduce child poverty by 60 percent and lift 6.6 million children out of poverty.

January 28, 2015

Early Childhood Short Research Summary

Investing in Early Childhood Development and Learning is Key to the Success of Our Children and Our Nation’s Long-Term Economic Growth

Strong Start for America's Children Act Offers New Hope for Children Birth through Five

State of America's Children 2014 - Early Childhood

January 23, 0014

The State of America's Children 2014

The State of America's Children 2014

January 23, 2014

More Early Childhood Development and Early Learning Data

Child Watch® Columns

Child Watch® Columns: Early Childhood Development and Learning

  • 02/03/17

    Child Watch® Column:
    Ripping America Apart

    If you are reeling from the series of Executive Orders and Memoranda issued by President Trump in his first two weeks in office, and horrified by what clearly seems to be an unconstitutional, un-American and unjust ban on Muslims from seven countries that has caused outrage at home and abroad, keep reading.
  • 01/27/17

    Child Watch® Column:
    Leslie Dunbar: An Indispensable One

    A number of years ago, I heard a deeply moving story at a Children’s Miracle Network event, a charity that raises money in partnership with children’s hospitals around the country and helps serve sick and injured children in their local communities. A speaker shared this heart-wrenching story of a father and son with the audience and agreed to let me share it with others after I requested a copy.
  • 11/23/16

    Child Watch® Column:
    A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Our Nation to Stand Up for All Our Children

    Lord I can’t preach like Martin Luther King, Jr. or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou but I care and am willing to serve and stand with others to move our children forward and save our children in this time of Thanksgiving.
  • 11/11/16

    Child Watch® Column:
    Bringing America Together for Our Children's Sake

    What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? What kind of moral examples, teachings, choices — personal, community, economic, faith, and political — are we parents, grandparents, community adults, political leaders, and citizens prepared to make in this new century and millennium to make our children strong inside and empower them to seek and help build a more just, compassionate, and less violent society and world?
  • 11/04/16

    Child Watch® Column:
    Keep Moving Forward on the Path Towards Justice

    You must vote for better futures for the millions of children left behind and for closing our country’s morally obscene and killing income, wealth, and educational gaps. Get out and vote and say thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Medgar Evers and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who were beaten, bombed and killed for your and my right to vote. Get out to vote for Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland who can’t vote to stop renegade law enforcement practices. Get out to vote for all those hungry and homeless and illiterate children who have no voice in the political process and have to make their way daily through gun saturated streets of terror. Get out to vote to help ensure that another Newtown tragedy does not occur at the hands of an unstable adolescent wielding a gun loaded with large capacity ammunition magazines that have no business in the hands of unstable youths.

Past Child Watch® Columns about Early Childhood Development and Early Learning