INTRODUCTION & PURPOSE
Early experiences matter. Science shows us that the first 3 years of a child’s life are a critical period for growth and development. “Of the 12 million babies and toddlers in the United States, more than half spend some or all of their day being cared for by someone other than their parents” (Zero to Three, 2021). When babies, toddlers, and their families have access to high-quality early learning and care experiences that are nurturing, engaging, and full of supportive and consistent relationships, babies and toddlers thrive. Currently, high-quality and affordable infant and toddler (I/T) care is out of reach for many. Research shows that 3 out of 4 infants in child care are in low- or mediocre-quality settings (Zero to Three, n.d.). A critical component of high-quality I/T care is a knowledgeable and competent workforce. Many states and territories are focusing on strengthening the workforce to provide more families with access to high-quality care options. The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 targets improvement in the supply and quality of I/T care. Through this law, states and territories are encouraged to implement systems and approaches that:
- strengthen the quality of I/T care provided;
- improve the capacity of the workforce to meet the developmental needs of very young children; and
- increase the percentage of infants and toddlers in high-quality care.
States have embarked on several quality improvement strategies for strengthening I/T child care. One such strategy is the creation of I/T Specialist Networks (ITSNs), which are designed to provide support to the I/T caregiver workforce. This effort entails the provision of coaching and technical assistance on the unique needs of infants and toddlers through an I/T specialist who can work directly with the I/T workforce to increase their skills, knowledge, and competencies in providing evidence-informed early care and learning for infants and toddlers across early childhood settings and sectors.
I/T specialists can be a key support for the I/T workforce by collaborating with state-based professional
development systems and linking the workforce to other quality support programs and initiatives, such as
a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), child care licensing, early intervention services, I/T early
childhood mental health consultation supports, staffed family child care (FCC) networks, and other consultant and technical assistance networks.
An ITSN is a state-based (sometimes regionally managed) system that coordinates the work of I/T specialists and is primarily funded through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). The overall goal of the ITSN is to support the I/T workforce to ensure that all babies, toddlers, and their families have access to high-quality care. This publication:
- explores how ITSNs can support the I/T workforce and increase access to high-quality care;
- provides an integrated, stage-based approach to implementing ITSNs; and
- describes concepts to support, strengthen, and enhance existing ITSNs.
The Current Landscape of Infant/Toddler Care, Quality, and the Workforce: A Path to Understanding the Important Strategy That Is Infant/Toddler Specialist Networks
As families increasingly rely on child care, it is imperative that babies and toddlers have access to the kinds of developmentally meaningful interactions and relationship-based care that we know makes a difference in the first 1,000 days of life. According to Shonkoff and Phillips (2000), “the positive relation between child care quality and virtually every facet of children’s development that has been studied is one of the most consistent findings in developmental science” (p. 313). We now understand that caregivers through the first years of life have a significant effect on children, which profoundly influences the trajectory of learning, development, and success in school and life.