Fermin Leal / EdSource Today
Aimee Perez, left, dresses as a doctor as she gives a check-up to Chelsea Conway during their preschool class at Land School in Westminster, Calif.

It’s time for California to take bold and cohesive action to create a true system for early childhood well-being that is evidence-based and puts families at the center.

Credit: Michael Winokur

Nadine Burke Harris

As a pediatrician, I’ve seen firsthand that child well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the child’s caregivers. We must develop a “two-generation system” — one where we meet care needs of the child and their family.

This means thinking about the educational and support needs of parents and guardians so they can earn a living wage and have the time and resources to meet their families’ needs. With a whole child and whole family approach, we can reduce child poverty, improve equity and reduce health and educational disparities in early childhood.

California has long understood the importance of investing in our children.

Our history has shown that quality, affordable child care and early childhood programs can improve outcomes, change lives and yield economic benefits down the line. Today, millions of California families with young children rely on a range of programs provided by the state, such as developmental screening that empowers parents with time-sensitive information about their child and how to support their physical, emotional and cognitive development; home visits that support parents with their new child by connecting them to supports, care and education; and access to nutritious food and formula through SNAP, CalFRESH and WIC.

However, the myriad programs that have an impact on young children’s lives operate in silos. There is a lot of room for improvement in how we integrate and coordinate them. New programs have been brought online without a focus on creating a system that is easy for families and providers to navigate. Though well-intentioned, our existing system tends to focus on programs. Instead, we need a system that focuses on families.

Our system must evolve with scientific developments that show how fundamental early environments are in shaping children’s developing brains and bodies. This research overwhelmingly calls for a holistic approach to supporting young children and their families.

Further, we must begin to build the data and information systems needed to better understand how and where we are helping young children and their families and close disparities among communities.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom tasked California to craft the Master Plan for Early Learning and Care that will provide the roadmap to universal preschool and a comprehensive, quality, affordable childcare system.

Just as our state’s Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 opened doors for millions of Californians of all backgrounds, today, we’re thinking just as big for the youngest Californians.

On March 16 in Sacramento, more than two dozen of their strongest advocates will come together for the first convening of California’s new Early Childhood Policy Council.

Our areas of expertise vary, but our commitment is the same: build a community, a California, where all children are valued and have a chance to succeed.

Today, we have a unique window of opportunity to coordinate and collaborate to build a better system for early childhood investments. Our governor is deeply committed to California’s children and families. As part of that commitment, Gov. Newsom has proposed that California establish a dedicated Department of Early Childhood Development, which will bring under one roof the best ideas and practices in health, early learning and care, family supports and more.

The goal is to serve the whole child and whole family, and better connect the various programs that serve babies and toddlers – such as home visiting; developmental and trauma screening; Medi-Cal’s Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment; CalWORKs and the Early Start Program. With these vital services housed together, leaders will be able to more seamlessly integrate and collaborate with one another to help us maximize our investments in high-quality early childhood programs for low-income children, their families, and the workforce.

Caring for our children – helping them get the healthiest start in life — is the most important investment we can make in our future. For Gov. Newsom, a father of four young children, these moves are as important to a child’s physical and mental health as they are to our state’s economic health. As a parent of four boys of color, I couldn’t be more passionately committed to this mission. All California kids deserve adults who are looking out for them. We’re thinking “cradle-to-career” so that the next generation of California kids gets the best possible chance at a healthy, productive life.

California again has an opportunity to build a model for other states to follow — and with it, transform the lives of the children of our state for generations to come.

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Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is California’s first surgeon general.

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