The First 10 Approach

The First 10 Theory of Action

Educational Equity: All Children Learn and Thrive

The disjointed patchwork of early childhood and early elementary programs in the United States leaves children vulnerable and at risk. Inspired by innovative communities, First 10 brings together school districts, elementary schools, early childhood programs, and community agencies to build coherent systems of support for young children and their families.

The goal of First 10 is for all children to learn and thrive. This goal encompasses academic and social emotional learning and physical and mental health as priorities. Realizing this educational equity goal requires that communities ensure that all children have opportunities and supports to enable their success and eliminate the predictability of success or failure that currently correlates with social, economic, racial, and cultural factors.

First 10 creates pathways out of poverty for young children and their families and dramatically improves the well-being, school readiness, and school success of the 22 million children in the U.S. who live in families with low or below poverty-level incomes.

Community Partnerships Drive Change

Communities work towards all children learning and thriving by forming First 10 partnerships. These partnerships acknowledge the interdependence of effective schools, nurturing families, and strong community institutions, and they seek to advance the effectiveness of each through mutually-reinforcing collaboration.

These partnerships take two forms: First 10 Community Partnerships bring together multiple elementary schools, school district leaders, and early childhood programs to improve the quality and coordination of early childhood education and care throughout a geographic area or community. First 10 School Hubs are anchored by a single elementary school that extends its partnerships with families to include those with young children ages 0 to 4 and forms partnerships with early childhood providers and community organizations in its catchment area. A First 10 community partnership might include one or more First 10 school hubs.

Four Broad Strategies Tailored to Community Needs

Whether hubs or broader community partnerships, First 10 initiatives begin by conducting needs assessments and then developing and implementing plans that tailor four broad First 10 strategies to address the specific needs of their communities:

  • Support professional collaboration to improve teaching and learning
  • Coordinate comprehensive services for children and families
  • Promote culturally responsive partnerships with families
  • Provide strategic leadership and ongoing assessment

Typical First 10 practices include providing play and learn groups linked to elementary schools, coordinating connections to health and social services, improving the quality of early childhood programs, coordinating the transition to kindergarten, conducting joint pre-K and kindergarten professional development, and improving early grades curriculum and instruction.

For examples of First 10 strategies in action, see Four Strategies for Getting the First 10 Years of a Child’s Life Right (Education Week). For the First 10 Theory of Action, see here and pages 86-91 of All Children Learn and Thrive.

Exchange Across Communities

Community team members learn how these strategies are used in other First 10 communities, including in the exemplars profiled in the All Children Learn and Thrive study (e.g., Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Oregon) as well as from current initiatives underway in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island (and soon in Alabama).

Drawing on a Long History of Research and Practice

First 10 draws on a long history of research on transitions, early childhood system-building, and community schools; on the contemporary P–3 and community schools movements; and in particular on the work of pioneers such as Sharon Lynn Kagan, Kristie Kauerz, Robert Pianta, Arthur Reynolds, Sharon Ritchie, and Ruby Takanishi.[1] For more on this context, see All Children Learn and Thrive, pages 4–11 and 62–64.

Why Use “First 10” to Describe this Approach?

“We adopt a broad definition of early childhood as the entire first decade of life, from prenatal development up to age 10 . . . The historical convention of the preschool period from ages 3 to 5 as defining early childhood has encouraged an unfortunate classification of programs and experiences that limit integration. The focus on the continuum of experiences supports a more complete spectrum of services and research approaches.”
Reynolds, A. J., & Temple, J. A. (Eds.). (2019). Sustaining Early Childhood Learning Gains: Program, School, and Family Influences. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 13.

We follow Reynolds and Temple in adopting a broad definition of early childhood as including roughly the first decade of life. Using the term First 10 Schools and Communities to refer to this convergent model offers several benefits:

  • There is a need for a term that refers to the combination of high-quality teaching and learning in the early grades, family engagement and partnership, and comprehensive services for children and families.
  • “First 10,” understood as roughly the first decade of life, signals the importance of school district and elementary school collaboration with other early childhood programs. School principals, district leaders, and leaders of other child-serving organizations are all critical to improving the quality and alignment of teaching, learning, and care across the full early childhood continuum, yet terminology that leaves out fourth and fifth graders is an obstacle for many elementary school principals.*
  • While some children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” as they move from grade 3 to 4, there is and should be much continuity in teaching and learning practices, family engagement and partnership, and comprehensive services as children transition to fourth grade and beyond.
  • Innovative elementary schools demonstrate the importance of incorporating early-grades improvement work into school-wide improvement strategies. They also illustrate the potential of First 10 initiatives as a whole-school change approach. For example, that principals in Metro Omaha think of their schools as “Birth Through Grade 5” hubs suggests the level of buy-in that is possible with this work and the extent to which it can become part of a school’s identity.

* While most elementary schools go up to fifth grade (ages 10 and 11, typically), some go up to sixth grade and some to eighth. The latter often have a separate unit dedicated to grades 6–8.

[1] Sharon Lynn Kagan and Kristie Kauerz, Early Childhood Systems: Transforming Early Learning (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2012); Sharon Ritchie, Kelly Maxwell, and Richard M. Clifford, “FirstSchool: A New Vision for Education,” in School Readiness and the Transition to Kindergarten in the Era of Accountability, ed. Robert C. Pianta, Martha J. Cox, and Kyle Snow, 85–96 (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2007); Ruby Takanishi, First Things First! Creating the New American Primary School (Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2016); Kristie Kauerz and Julia Coffman, Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Prek–3rd Grade Approaches (Seattle, WA: College of Education, University of Washington, 2013); Lisa Guernsey and Sarah Mead, A Next Social Contract for the Primary Years of Education (Washington, DC: New America, 2010); Laura Bornfreund, Elise Franchino, Amaya Garcia, Aaron Loewenberg, Cara Sklar, and Kristina Ishmael, Supporting Early Learning in America Policies for a New Decade (Washington, DC: New America, 2020); and John Rogers, Community Schools: Lessons from the Past and Present (Flint, MI: Charles S. Mott Foundation, 1998).