BUILDing Strong Foundations – Natural Allies: Growing Connections between Health and Education


Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.
Director, Early Opportunities LLC

Last week we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Head Start Program. Leading up to that launch in 1965, a panel of experts, chaired by Dr. Robert Cooke of Johns Hopkins University, set forth recommendations for the establishment of the program. Reading through those recommendations five decades later, the wisdom of those early pioneers continues to shine – the founders called for comprehensive services that address the health, education, and family support needs of young children in poverty.

This week we reaffirm this holistic approach to child development with the publication of the third chapter of the E-Book, Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families. The chapter being shared today, Early Learning-Health Connections by Dr. Jill Sells, documents some of the recent cross-sector accomplishments in nine out of the 20 states that received Early Learning Challenge funds. As Dr. Sells points out, “The relationship between health and early learning feels like common sense.”

Over the years the vision of good health as a cornerstone to successful learning has been reinforced through numerous scientific advances and on-the-ground experiences with families. Good health was a key indicator in the readiness goal; it was the drive behind several federal efforts such as Healthy Child Care America, the Maternal and Child Health systems grants, Project Launch, as well as private initiatives, such as the BUILD Initiative, which are supported by a range of foundations. For most of these initiatives the goal was to bring the vision of coordination between health and education that was so fundamental to Head Start – into child care and other early childhood programs through health and mental health consultation, developmental screening, immunization campaigns and other efforts that emerged across the country. It was through the leadership of so many pediatricians, public health officials, and dedicated early childhood, family support and developmental disability experts and advocates that efforts such as Help Me Grow, Reach Out and Read, Healthy Steps, Let’s Move Child Care, among others, started to take hold.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education came together to plan and implement the Early Learning Challenge, they built on this rich history and solid foundation. The Challenge included the clear recognition that that the domains of development are integrated, that early learning standards as well as quality standards must address these holistic needs, and that screening measures are a core component of a comprehensive assessment system.

While progress has been made, there is so much more to do. As we present this important chapter, I offer four recommendations for continued action to bring health and education together:

  1. All states should identify and address the health, behavioral, and developmental needs of children with high needs. This optional component in the Early Learning Challenge should be required in every state, with additional resources to make it a reality.
  2. Communities need to rally around a new set of goals that help assure that every child enters school happy and confident, at a healthy weight, with healthy eating habits, lots of time for physical activity, early dental care and access to consistent, quality health care. Prevention is the name of the game in 21st century health care and in education reform. It all starts with healthy adolescence, prenatal care, and breastfeeding, and it continues through ongoing linkages between health providers and schools.
  3. Health care for parents and providers is essential for the healthy development of children. The adults in children’s lives should have access to social and mental health supports and good health care themselves, particularly during those stressful early years of parenting and for those who care for infants and toddlers.
  4. A new era of innovation should be launched to develop measures and technologies to assure developmental monitoring at the population level, including for children from birth to age three. Assessing children as they enter school is a step forward, but far too late for many children whose development is at risk at a much earlier age.

Five decades after the dawn of Head Start, it is more widely recognized than ever   that health, learning, and behavior are grounded in the earliest years of life. Federal leaders have acknowledged this with the Early Learning Challenge and the Affordable Care Act, which provides new opportunities to pay for population level health and links to early learning.

Let’s renew efforts to grow connections between education and health – two of life’s natural allies – and help fulfill the promise that is born in every child.

Source: The BUILD Initiative

Available at:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s