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 high-quality, comprehensive early childhood programs from birth through age 5. We are committed to working with our partners to pass the Strong Start for America’s Children Act to make this vision a reality. This legislation offers new hope to young children and their families by investing in and encouraging expansions of quality programs from birth through age 5 and including universal access to quality preschool for low-income 4-year-olds. Read our short summary of this important legislation to find out how the Strong Start for America’s Children Act will benefit your children and community and take action!

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, funding for the program is set to run out in 2015. 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. Although the programs served more than a million low-income children in 2013, funding was only available to serve 4 in 10 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds and 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers.

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.


Quality child care is a crucial support for working families and their children; however, access is out of reach for far too many. High costs and non-traditional work schedules force many families to use care that is lower-quality and at times creates unsafe environments for children. The federal government recognizes the challenges families face in accessing care and provides subsidies through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to reduce the cost of care and support investments in quality; however, funding for the program has not kept pace with inflation and the program only serves 1 in 4 eligible children under age 6.

CDF believes that all children deserve access to high-quality, safe child care environments that nurture their developing brains, foster social skills and allow their parents or guardians to work. We support efforts to reauthorize and increase funding for CCDBG so all families who need it have access to quality, affordable child care.   


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 Poverty in America 2015 National FactSheet

Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 13, 2016 reveal child poverty declined last year to 14.5 million poor children, one million fewer than in 2014, but still higher than before the recession began in 2007.

September 13, 2016

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

More Early Childhood Development and Early Learning Data