We each have a role to play in ensuring early childhood systems are durable and equitable for all Virginia families. This section provides the tools, resources and important milestones you need to lay the foundation for your systems-building efforts. You will know your community is Ready once you’ve assembled a diverse team of stakeholders who understand the significance of systems building and can articulate a unified vision of success.


Here is what you can expect to learn in this section:

Understand systems building and why it’s important for equity in early childhood

Build community partnerships to steward your early childhood system

Create a compelling vision


Many factors can influence a child’s development during the first brain-building years. Positive experiences and nurturing environments shape children’s growth and development — creating the foundation for the brain’s rapidly growing architecture.

Systems building is the art and science of coordinating and improving essential supports for engaged families, healthy development, and early care and learning so that the system is more effective, equitable, coherent and sustainable for the benefit of children and families.

early childhood system working group graphic

The Early Childhood System Working Group (ECSWG) has developed a simple graphic depicting the intersection of the health, early learning and development, and family support and leadership systems that are necessary to develop a comprehensive early childhood system. Early childhood stakeholders can use this graphic to understand, communicate and support policy improvements for systems.

The multifaceted, healthy development of a young child requires alignment of social, educational, health and human services systems to engage and support communities, families and their children. Yet we know that not all children have access to the opportunities, environments and experiences that put them on a trajectory for success.

While Virginia ranks 13th among states for overall child well-being in the 2021 Kids Count Data Book, data disaggregated by race, ethnicity and family income reveal persistent disparities. Children who have experienced trauma or early adversity are also at greater risk for unhealthy development.

Virginia is a state of both growing racial and ethnic diversity and stubborn poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to make disturbing inequities even more pronounced. In order to ensure the social and economic well-being of the Commonwealth, equity of opportunity must be addressed in the earliest years of life.



Resource: Explore this Theory of Change to learn how we can build effective systems and approaches that support healthy development for all young children.

Establishing a collaborative and inclusive partnership structure (sometimes called an advisory council or leadership team) requires equitable structures of engagement.


Relationships among community agencies and providers, families, early educators and children are at the heart of the early childhood sector. By communicating, convening and collaborating with these multifaceted stakeholders, your community’s leadership can establish, maintain and grow relationships that support shared goals, coordination and accountability across programs.

Equitable community partnerships aim to:

Engage the voice and input of community leaders in systems building and strategic planning

Create a collaborative approach to understanding and addressing community issues, building on strengths and addressing community concerns

Foster cross-sector collaboration and sharing of resources and creative ideas across community members and partners

Promote inclusion, engagement, ownership and empowerment of community members

Build community capacity to work together


Early childhood leadership teams represent collaborations of community entities from public and private sectors. They are effective when everyone is committed to common goals and outcomes, and when they are grounded in experiences and capacity to make decisions about how and where resources flow.

Broad engagement across sectors might include school divisions, local governments, human service agencies, child care providers and preschools, United Way agencies, Smart Beginnings initiatives, chambers of commerce, institutions of higher education and other community-based organizations.

Identifying a community lead or point person is one of the most critical tasks for your leadership team. This person must be able to dedicate time and energy to build relationships and develop a culture across the various stakeholders involved. The community’s success depends on collaborative and trusting relationships. This individual must consistently lead the work and keep the community focused on the “why” of systems building: improving school readiness for Virginia’s children.


The team should consist of leaders who represent the communities they serve. At the start, the team should develop agreements and meeting frequency with input from all members. Establishing roles and responsibilities and clear
decision-making processes supports an environment where all participants can function with clarity and purpose.

The structure of a new leadership team is often shaped by a specific project or grant initiative. As communities grow in their sophistication and commitment to systems building, the roles and responsibilities may change shape as the need for greater coordination increases. As a community moves toward fully coordinating multiple programs and initiatives, they will be well served by formal governance and decision-making structures, fiscal agency roles and responsibilities, and staffing and coordination of programs and initiatives.

To build an early childhood system that works for all Virginia families, regions and communities must create opportunities for families to offer guidance and input about early childhood decisions that matter most to them. A strong family council can engage families as co-creators and decision-makers, and is most effective when grounded in these values:

  • Families are the building blocks of Virginia communities and parents are a child’s first and most important teachers
  • Parents have a unique understanding of what’s best for their children and a right to participate in decisions that directly affects them

Resource: To learn more about Family Council models, review this guide.


How does your leadership team and partnership reflect the racial and socioeconomic diversity of your community?

How has your community partnership created agreements and structures so that diverse perspectives inform the decision-making process?

Building a cohesive system must begin with a shared vision for ensuring that all families have access to the early childhood services that can equip young children for school and life. Consider the unique needs, opportunities, challenges, strengths and populations within your region or community and declare a bold vision for the future.

Looking for inspiration? See these examples to get started:

The Back to Work Virginia Task Force convened in 2020 to envision a re-imagined child care system, essential for economic recovery and a bright future for the Commonwealth. The Task Force came together to embrace a bold goal and vision. To learn more, click here.

Goal: All Virginia families can access quality child care by 2030.

Vision: Virginia will be the number one state in the nation for optimizing human capacity across the lifespan.

Minus 9to5, a collective impact initiative in Hampton Roads, also leads with bold goals and vision.


Ensure availability of and equal access to high-quality programs and services for each child and family.

Take a child- and family-centered, solutions-oriented approach to meeting the needs of children and families.

Our early care and education system is culturally relevant, appreciating the uniqueness of each child and family.

Our early care and education system is coordinated and seamless, reinforcing complementary strengths across the region.

Strive for improved outcomes, sharing information and data transparently.

Vision: Each family in Hampton Roads is equipped and supported to raise children who are healthy, thriving and ready to learn.